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Category: Meaning

Final thoughts: Jesus, his kingdom, and predicting the end of the world

Apparently, in a matter of hours, we’re all going to die.


According to a Christian Numerologist—whatever that is—September 23, 2017 is the day when an unseen planet known either as Planet X or Nibiru will come crashing to earth, creating tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, flooding, and—far worse—the widespread release of the movie mother! to a frantic public.

This will result in wide-spread panic, confusion, and other levels of mayhem.

There is already evidence of this: The Great Solar Eclipse, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the flooding in Houston, and the Mexico City earthquake.

Even the Bible backs up this claim, Luke 21:25-26:

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Clearly, if you omit the last total eclipse in 1999, the next one in 2024, the lunar eclipse/blood moon of 2015, the four blood moons, as well as Hurricanes Katrina, Hugo, Inike, Camille, Andrew, Ike, Patricia, etc., the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, the 1993 and ’27 Mississippi River floods, how can one not see these verses are referring specifically to September 23, 2017?

To my knowledge, the world ended in 2003, 2011, 2012, 2015, in addition to the coming apocalypse on Saturday. That’s just the twenty-first century.  And who can remember all the times the world ended in the last? I am still suffering from the doomsday apocalypse of Y2K. And these are just the Christian predictions.

As I count down my final hours before Nibiru appears as a fiery sphere in the sky, a couple of thoughts come to mind. Why are we in Christ’s body so obsessed with the end of the world? And is all this effort within the body of Christ to predict the end of the world doing anything to further the kingdom of God?

Make no mistake, I believe that Jesus Christ will come again. I believe the prophecies of Revelation will happen, although I am unsure exactly what they will look like. But I also know that Jesus states that no one knows the day or the hour of his return (Matthew 24:36).

So why haven’t Jesus’s words stopped us from trying?

It would be easy to simply blame the writers, speakers, and promoters of popular eschatology (the study of the last days), taking advantage of a multi-million-dollar industry. Who wouldn’t want a cut of those profits? The cynic in me could just stop there.

But I think there is more to it. These end-time entrepreneurs wouldn’t have a market if we, the Christian body, weren’t so obsessed with it.

So why the obsession?

One wouldn’t have to look too far beyond the headlines for the answer. Every day for the last couple of months, there seems to be yet another catastrophic hurricane out in the Atlantic, another forest fire, another earthquake, another incident of mindless violence, another reminder of the deadly stare-down with North Korea, or another terrorist attack. Humans no longer talk to each other; we scream, degrade, and if those don’t work, kick the snot out of each other. It is overwhelming. In the words of singer Randy Stonehill: “It’s a great big stupid world, and I’m feeling kind of queasy as it spins around…”

What is most troubling is the realization that all of this is completely beyond our control. We simply don’t know how to fix the universe. We look to science, reason, and government to stop it but to no avail. There is simply nothing we can do. There are powers far greater than the human mind. These horrible events are daily reminders of our helplessness.

For us Christ-followers, we look beyond the natural for meaning to the chaos. We search the darkness for something to cling to. Obviously, we turn to Jesus. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I highly recommend it. He is, after all, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is the Savior of the world, the lighthouse in the storm, the loving shepherd and protector. Jesus is exactly to whom we should turn.

The problem comes when we turn our focus more on Jesus’s return than we do on the Jesus himself.

We don’t do this intentionally. We know that good wins over evil. The book of Revelation and the second coming point to an end of the suffering and chaos, an end which results in victory. And this focus brings relief. Knowing this, the next logical step is to turn our attention to when that will be. The when becomes the point of emphasis.

The when, however, is intentionally ambiguous. If the Son of Man doesn’t know, then how can we? Yet we continue to look at the Bible as a code, a numbers game, a treasure map. The Bible is the Word of God, the answer to all; therefore, the when just has to be in there somewhere. It is there simply for us to discover.

So, we scour the Bible for new clues. We read books that look to the sky claiming to have unlocked said clues. We attend seminars meshing current events to the Scriptures to understand.

I can’t help but to wonder if this is our attempt to run toward Jesus, to cling to someone bigger than ourselves.

The truth is, we are burning too much of our energy and resources trying to unlock the details about the end of the world. Instead, we should turn that energy to being the kingdom of God in the face of great suffering and chaos.

Whenever I see a headline of yet another Christian predicting the end of the world, I cringe. The truth is, end-time Christians who make bold, specific predictions about the end have never been right. After their predictions turn out wrong, they don’t reform themselves. They simply let enough time pass before they can figure out and write about the next celestial event that will most certainly spell the end.

But every time a failed prediction passes, the body of Christ loses a little more credibility. After all, if Christians are so wrong about predicting the end of the world, couldn’t they also be wrong about the deity of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection? Why should the world accept the message of the cross when its followers get the end of the world so wrong so frequently? Why should we even be trusted?

These failed predictions do little more than affirm the world’s stereotypes that Christians are nothing more than superstitious buffoons. They put the Christian faith on the defensive and cheapen the message of grace the cross brings.

And the cross should always be our focus.



Why is the cross so hated around the world?

Last Tuesday, as I waited outside for someone to unlock my church for an event, a young couple walked by. As they passed, the woman read aloud, not once but twice, a sign on the door and gave a loud, exaggerated snort of derision. Then she actually turned around and came back to snap a photo of it. Judging from her sharp, sarcastic laughter, I was sure the photo would be posted online with a snarky comment — something about the stupidity of church people.

On the outside, I briefly made eye contact with her and gave her a nod and a smile.

But on the inside, I sensed the insult and felt a rush of snappy retorts. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit kept my pie-hole closed.

After she left, I turned to see what she had found so funny. The sign just said: “No woman’s [sic] Bible reading tonight.”

Other than the spelling error — “woman’s” instead of “women’s” — I could see nothing there to inspire her derisive laughter – much less a photo surely destined for social media.

I started to think that her actions had been for my benefit. I can read, and I’m sure her companion could too — so why did she feel the need to keep reading this sign aloud? And why was she so intent on mocking it that she retraced her steps to photograph it, right in front of me? I’m just a Christian who happened to be standing outside my church, waiting for someone to open it; I never did anything to her. Yet I really think she was making a dig against Christianity in my presence. Maybe it was something else, but I don’t think I misread her meaning.

Two days earlier, two ISIS terrorists had blown themselves up in Coptic churches in Egypt, killing forty-four and injuring many others. The worshipers in these churches were celebrating Palm Sunday, just as we were doing here.

Somehow, these two events seemed distantly related to me.

Let me be very clear. The mockery (if that’s what it was) I experienced on Tuesday is nothing compared to the horror and sorrow of the explosions in Egypt last Sunday. The two events aren’t even on the same scale.

But both events share a similar seed: a hatred for Jesus and the cross. Every other group now has defenders to be sure they are not mocked or persecuted; only Christians are still fair game. On one end of the spectrum, TV and movies virtually always portray Christians as naïve, bigoted idiots who contribute nothing to society. On the other end, we hear constant reports of the rape, torture, and slaughter of Christ-followers overseas. Christians are the last remaining scapegoat in cultures around the world.

Clearly, Jesus isn’t surprised by this hatred: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18, NIV). I’ve always wondered why this is so. Why does the world respond to Jesus with such hate and animosity?

If you ask non-Christians–and even some Christians–in the United States why, most will point to Christians themselves as the primary reason. They might say that Christians are too judgmental, or hypocritical, or filled with hate.

Fair enough. All Christ-followers are guilty of those things at one time or another. I know I certainly am. Sadly, I often beat myself up for saying or doing things that embarrass the cause of Christ. So this criticism against Christians is not unfounded.

But the same criticism also applies to pretty much everyone else on the planet. I can’t think of a single person who is not judgmental, hypocritical, or filled with hate. Welcome to humanity. 

No, I believe the hatred of the cross and its followers is something deeper.

Sure, the cross was a grisly torture device, designed to cause death in the most sadistic, pain-filled way possible. So to unbelievers, celebrating the cross naturally seems creepy and scandalous. To them, the whole bloody sacrifice thing is nauseating and worthy of scorn.

But even deeper: The cross confronts our idolatry. It threatens the god of Me. It exposes the fact that we are hopelessly lost and broken – and we cannot fix it.

We don’t want to think about that.

Ironically, we are so determined not to face our brokenness that we respond to this exposure with hatred, derision, and mockery. And in so doing, we silence the rest of the message: the freedom and redemption that comes through the cross.

Jesus’ death obliterated every obstacle between us and Almighty God. Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we receive the redemption that comes with it.

I can’t force the world to hear, understand, or accept this message. I can only reflect Jesus as best as I can to those around me.

Even so, it is likely the world will continue to hate my Savior and, by extension, me. We Christ-followers shouldn’t be disturbed by this hatred. Jesus warned us it would come, and you don’t have to delve too far into the daily news to see his warning fulfilled.

I am okay with this.

Because the world may treat Christians with hatred and scorn – but we have the cross. Without the cross we are broken, sinful, and inadequate. But with it, I pray that each of us may respond as Jesus did – with his authentic love and forgiveness in return.

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So what is my story anyway?


As summer ends and school begins, I’ve been in a funk, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I’d hoped to make more progress on my new book manuscript before my fall teaching resumes. Maybe it’s because some of my friends are moving on to greener pastures, and I’m a bit sad. Maybe it’s because the upcoming election depresses me.

Maybe it’s because pretty soon, I’ll turn fifty.

Fifty is a landmark. My body is getting older, my pharmacy visits more regular, and the arrival of my first AARP invitation much closer (that last one really creeps me out). I’m starting to do things I never dreamed I would, like gripe about my sore back and say things like, “When I was your age…” More and more, I feel like Old Man Caruthers in the old Scooby Doo cartoons: “If it wasn’t for you darn kids!”

As my birthday approaches, I can’t help wondering: What have I done with these first fifty years of my life? And what will I do with what’s left? Just when I should be planning ahead for retirement, I still don’t know what to be when I grow up.

The best times of my life have involved writing (in my PhD effort) and teaching (at my dream job), but so have my biggest failures (the loss of both). Besides, writing often doesn’t pay much, and I’m still finding only part-time teaching opportunities in my subject areas.

So I face questions—mostly of the “magic 8-ball” variety: What’s ahead for me? Will I find clarity, or just more ambiguity? Will some sort of life purpose finally come into view?

I think what I’m really asking is: So what is my story? You’d think I’d have one by now – but what is it?

In the early 1980s, the philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard wrote a critique of modernity called The Postmodern Condition. In it, he argues that science is limited because it relies solely on knowledge for meaning, but true meaning transcends knowledge. He claims that meaning is found only through story.

So what is my story?

The truth is, my resume doesn’t reflect any standout direction or ability. There’s really nothing about me which excels over anyone else, and in fact there are many things about me which fall short.

But that’s not my story. That’s not who I am.

If I told you my story
You would hear Hope that wouldn’t let go
And if I told you my story
You would hear Love that never gave up
And if I told you my story
You would hear Life, but it wasn’t mine”

“My Story” – Big Daddy Weave

My story is about overcoming my past to make a better future. My story is about beating my low-income, broken-home background to get an education, buy a home, and establish a stable marriage which has outlasted my parents’.  My story is about turning my PhD loss – my worst personal failure – into a book, produced by a respected Christian publishing house. And that last fact seems to confirm Lyotard’s point: my efforts at science (researching and interpreting data in a 400-page doctoral dissertation) went down in flames and will never see the light of day—whereas Losers Like Us (my much smaller book about my life story) has gone public, bringing redemption to me and to others.

Now that I think about it, my story isn’t really about me at all. It’s about God, pouring out his grace over my mess.

I am a part of God’s story. God is the main character; God is the protagonist. The whole story arc, with all of its confusing, maddening subplots, glorifies him.

So what is my story?

My story is about grace, mercy, and redemption. It is about a God who loves me despite my failures, and uses my broken life to point others to him.

Others may be unimpressed by my resume – but it’s not who I really am. Your resume isn’t who you are either. No resume can ever reflect the meaning of our lives.

So now, as I face the precipice of my 50th birthday, I must keep telling my story. And his story. I must keep letting him shine through my brokenness.

That is my story.

It has been my story for this first half-century. Lord willing, it will be my story for the next.



The Great Closet Collapse of 2016: Tips for when life caves in

Pretty sure this is what happened in my closet.

Last week, my closet collapsed.

For fourteen years, the shelving worked perfectly. It did its job like a real trooper. Then, without any warning, it just failed. The overloaded bolts finally gave way and ripped out of the wall, dumping the shelving and all of its contents onto the floor. My semi-organized constant now lay in a crumpled heap. In a moment, my closet went from constancy to chaos.

To make matters worse, I am not much of a handyman. Beyond a basic screwdriver, I don’t know much about building / fixing / repairing / installing things. So, after moving the mountain of debris out of the closet and into my office, I faced the added stress of not knowing exactly what to do next. A true handyman would know. But in my case, even if I can make a lucky guess about what might need to be done, I still have no idea how to actually do it.

This situation feels like a metaphor for my life. At times it feels like I am standing in a mountain of debris, in the form of change and disruption.

First, February is the anniversary of the day when my postgraduate dream died. Pain and loss sap me whenever I remember walking away from the university and leaving England for the last time. I love England and long to return – but I still don’t know how to make sense of what happened there. True, my life is incredibly blessed in so many ways, but that whole confusing episode still feels like a huge heap of you-know-what. I wish the heavens would open with a downpour of redemption to turn it all into something meaningful, but instead of a downpour it feels more like a dribble.

Second, this year is an election year, and I feel overrun by mindless mobs speaking of “revolution” and “making America great again.” However, for most of the candidates, I have less confidence in their vision than apprehension that they might make things worse. Information races by me in blips and flashes. Change bombards me by the nanosecond. Nothing feels solid or stable. Order collapses, just like my shelving. My head feels ready to explode and disappear, like a volcanic island erupting and slipping under the sea.

This year is also the year I’ll turn 50. At an age when many people start planning ahead for retirement, I still don’t know what to be when I grow up. Writing has been a great release, but it feels like I am risking everything on an unknown. My goal for 2016 is to complete my next manuscript by the end of the year. However, I struggle endlessly with distractions of every kind—most recently, the catastrophe in my closet and the subsequent mess in my office as I try to figure out a solution.

I crave constancy – but the more I seek it, the more I find chaos.

The trouble is, nothing on this earth is constant. Despite all the secrets of the universe that we think we have unlocked with our finite minds, life can still throw us a curve ball—an accident, a betrayal or rejection, a medical diagnosis. We can’t predict it. We can’t prevent it. Try as we might to avoid or prepare for it, life simply caves in. One minute the world is normal and orderly, and the next minute everything blows up. And with the threat of the cave-in always lurking just beyond our awareness, we simply cannot cling to any certainty on earth.

My head knows that, but my heart still wants to believe otherwise.

And now, just days after “The Great Closet Collapse of 2016,” I sit in my office, trying unsuccessfully not to be distracted by the mess. But as I survey it, I do have some tips which bring perspective to both my closet and my life.

Be flexible. During this season of Lent, I have been thinking about my heart which I have allowed to harden as a defense mechanism against unwanted changes in my life. Unfortunately, a hardened heart is not flexible. Under pressure, it doesn’t bend; it breaks. Likewise, people who are not flexible have great trouble dealing with unwanted change. But change, like a tsunami, is unstoppable: the more we resist it, the more rigid and brittle we become – and the more damage we suffer when it finally breaks us. Growth comes not from having our lives in order, but from how we respond to unexpected disorder. When the collapse happens and we find ourselves buried in debris, we need to just take a breath, get our bearings, and start considering the next step.

Mt St. HelensRemember that God is the only true constant. Silly me – putting faith in a closet. We live in a universe where stars die and mountains disappear. The ground is constantly moving beneath our feet—sometimes we don’t feel it, but other times it moves with such force that it destroys whole regions. Everything in the universe is changing all the time, and we can’t stop it. So if we seek constancy in any created thing, we will be disappointed, because nothing is constant except God. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and he will never collapse under the weight of burden.

Find opportunity in the debris. For fourteen years my shelving served its purpose, and its collapse was another unwanted distraction—another problem I wish I didn’t have to solve. But after I cleared out the mess, I realized I had a choice – I could keep grieving the disaster, or take the unexpected opportunity to reorganize. For days now I’ve been staring at my blank wall, like DaVinci staring at the blank canvas that became the Mona Lisa. I’m considering the possibilities. Maybe I’ll reinstall the shelving exactly like it was. Maybe I’ll think of an even better setup. Maybe I’ll actually get rid of useless junk I forgot I had. In the same way, when life collapses we have a choice: focus on the tragedy, or find new opportunities in the rubble. When my postgraduate studies flamed out, God helped me turn that pain into a book to help others who have experienced failure. Countless others have also turned their pain into something beneficial. Opportunity is often buried beneath, and rises up from within, the brokenness of our lives.

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A perspective greater than terror

Last month we learned of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive and twenty-one Egyptian Christians being beheaded. In light of these horrors, I was flooded with anger, disgust, and heartbreak – natural responses to unspeakable acts. On top of this chaos was the painful suggestion that we shouldn’t feel such emotions, because other atrocities were committed in the name of Christ several decades or centuries ago.

christian-martyrs-todayI’m not saying old atrocities don’t matter. What I am saying is that these new atrocities are here and now, and the pain and horror are fresh and real. How is it helpful to debate historical events when we are in the middle of new terrorist slaughters day by day? Such debates will not stop the terror, nor will they help the victims that are being added with each new incident.

I think the crux of my overwhelming emotions was that I just don’t know what to do. How do I, as a follower of Jesus, respond to these terrible crises so far away—yet somehow so close? There seems to be no human solution to the violence, because violence tends to bring on more violence in our world’s economy of revenge. But on the other hand, doing nothing also seems to bring on more violence, because there is no pushback to check it.

Right after the beheadings, my daily scripture reading resonated amazingly with my feelings of frustration:

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.
We are given no miraculous signs;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, O God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
(Psalm 74:4-11)

This psalm was likely written in the context of the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar around 586 B.C. The author’s horror and confusion echo my own. Mass murder and brutality rage all around him, and God seems to be doing nothing about it.

TOPSHOTS-EGYPT-LIBYA-UNREST-CHRISTIANS-ISThe psalmist and I agree: Surely God sees the senseless violence; surely he could fix the problem. Together, we beg for divine intervention: Why doesn’t God stop the evil? Why doesn’t he unleash hellfire and brimstone in swift, sure judgment on this wicked world? (As I wish for this, I forget of course that if he did so, I myself would also be included in the judgment.)

Quite frankly, that was the direction my heart wanted to go. As in Revelation 19, I wanted to see Jesus, the Lord of Lords, galloping in with eyes of fire to confront the killers. I wanted justice—fast and brutal—poured down on the murderers of those twenty-one brothers in Christ, the Jordanian pilot, and the scores of other men, women, and children slaughtered in the name of a hijacked religion.

However, the psalmist’s next thought was so striking that it set me back on my heels:

But you, O God, are my king from of old;
you bring salvation upon the earth. (v. 12)

In the next verses (13-17), the writer goes on to praise God for his absolute sovereignty over the seas, the beasts, the rivers, the heavens, and the seasons.

In this psalm, there is no transition at all between challenging the inaction of God and praising that very same God. It seems an odd juxtaposition. On top of the old question of why God holds back judgment, I now have new questions: Why doesn’t the psalmist continue to hold God’s feet to the fire, so to speak? Why change direction and start praising God instead?

As verse 12 so eloquently reveals, for all of these questions the answer is the same: although God is a God of judgment, he is also a God of salvation. His highest purpose is to bring salvation to every corner of the whole earth.

In my anger and helplessness, I am forced to widen my scope.

Once again, I think of those twenty-one brothers in Jesus, kneeling on the beach, preparing to have their throats slit and their blood flow into the water. They are not victims; they are martyrs—a word which means “witnesses”—bearing witness to the Savior of this dark world. In the video of their executions, their last words were declarations that Jesus is Lord.

blood of martyrsJesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). There was far more courage in those Christ-followers facing death with Jesus’ name on their lips, than in those who stood over them holding the knives. Is it naïve—or even offensive—to think that this scene, horrific as it was, may be less about Allah’s vengeance than about God’s salvation?

Like the psalmist’s, my focus is taking a sharp, unexpected turn. Though the questions and confusion are real, we must lift up Jesus—like those twenty-one witnesses now in his arms—and pray for the Middle East to be flooded with something new: not horror and heartbreak, but salvation.

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Life on the altar

Contrary to the popular saying, time does not heal all wounds. Instead, it brings perspective.

February is the month when, seven years ago, I flew to England to defend my final doctoral thesis – only to watch it vaporize in less than an hour.

Since then, for the last seven years, February has always felt dark and heavy. I thought my sadness would dissipate, little by little, with each passing year, but it hasn’t. You don’t get over loss; you come to terms with it. I’m still trying to come to terms with why God led me into that doctoral program, only to let it blow up in my face.

Many people have tried to explain this mystery. Some have suggested that maybe I didn’t hear God correctly, or maybe I didn’t even listen – maybe my prayers for guidance were only a token gesture, seeking a rubber stamp on what I had already decided to do.

I have wrestled with this possibility, and have tried to discern whether it could be even partly true.

However, to this day, despite the rotten outcome, I still believe with all my heart that God led me into that particular program, and provided the funds. (Fortunately, I didn’t go into debt to pay for it—I paid as I went along.) Yes, I have erred and even sinned in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. But the same can be said of all the students who earned their degrees before me, as well as all those who did so after.

Sometimes when we can’t understand something, we “fill in the blank” with easy answers. And “maybe you didn’t hear God” is the easiest answer. It’s similar to Job’s friends concluding that his suffering was caused by sin – a conclusion later rebutted by God (Job 38-42).

No, there’s something more to this catastrophe than the possibility that I was just unwilling or unable (too rebellious or dense) to hear and obey God’s direction for my life.

* * *

In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to go to a certain mountain and sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise – the son who, miraculously born to Sarah at age 90, God has promised to bless with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

In Genesis terms, to “sacrifice” Isaac means to kill him—that is, to ritualistically place him on an altar, slit his throat, and burn his body.

I won’t lie to you: that is a disturbing command.

Sure, we know the ending: Abraham lays Isaac on the altar to kill him, but at the last second an angel prevents the killing. God’s command turns out to be just a test of Abraham’s faith, and Abraham passes the test. At least, that’s our confident Sunday school interpretation of this story.

But the story has perhaps less to do with faith than with sheer obedience. Metaphorically speaking, the life on the altar is really Abraham’s – not Isaac’s.

titiaan_abraham_izaak_grtIn this story, Abraham cannot possibly know the ending. He only knows that God – the very God who initiated Isaac’s miraculous birth and promised Isaac’s descendants will be too numerous to count – now commands the killing of that same Isaac.

God is asking Abraham to kill his own future – his dream.

Apparently God never intended to let Abraham go through with it, because after the surreal almost-sacrifice of Isaac, a ram is provided to be sacrificed instead (v. 13).

But Abraham still lost something – something very precious. His obedience had to change the father-son dynamic.

I mean, come on – there’s Dad standing over you, holding a knife to your throat. That’ll stick with you.

The hike back down the mountain must have been filled with awkward silences and suspicious glances.

And imagine the dinner conversation that night…

Sarah: “So how was your trip?”

Isaac: “Dad tried to kill me.”

Abraham’s actions must have destroyed Isaac’s trust for a good long while, maybe even forever. Scripture doesn’t indicate whether he eventually came to understand Abraham’s shocking attack against him, so we really don’t know.

Yet like a kamikaze, Abraham went all in.

That’s life on the altar.

* * *

Like Abraham, I feel that my own life is on the altar. I still believe God led me into that doctoral program – and then chose to take it as a sacrifice when it went up in smoke, so to speak.

In relationship to God, we all are in the position of Isaac – a living sacrifice on the altar. And though God, my father, seemed to kill me – my future and my dreams – ultimately it’s about continuing to trust him, no matter what.

It appears that God’s plan for me is not a full-time career in academia, as I envisioned, but rather a kind of ministry of encouragement to others who have suffered painful, humiliating losses or failures like mine. Since the publication of my book, Losers Like Us, I have been able to share my story with others who have experienced such losses or have questioned their purpose in life, as I have. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do feel an intimate connection with their pain. That connection would not exist if my PhD effort had passed.

Time does not heal the wound. But it does widen and deepen my perspective. As painful as it was, my story—seven years of time, money, and hope, sacrificed on the altar—is not about me; it is about obeying God just because he is God.

Even when a sacrifice has to die.

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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The paradox of the bells

01f3de4d7e0148b5b4f93d30cdc65338At Christmas I often reflect on the incongruity of peace amid conflict, hope amid despair, light amid darkness. I am reminded of the simple paradox that light can push back darkness, but darkness cannot overcome light.

And nothing expresses this paradox better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1864 poem, “Christmas Bells,”  later set to music as the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

We seldom hear the peal of church bells anymore, but in Longfellow’s time it was prominent in every town—especially at Christmas.

On Christmas Day 1864, our nation was enveloped in the darkness and despair of the Civil War. Yet Longfellow was struck by the joy and jubilation of the Christmas bells.

 I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!*

A couple of years earlier, Longfellow’s wife had died due to injuries from a fire; and more recently, against his wishes, his son Charles had joined the Union Army and had been critically wounded in battle.

Overwhelmed by grief, Longfellow struggled to reconcile the joy of the bells with the hopelessness of death and the destructiveness of war.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!*

In 2012, I experienced similar incongruity when America was rocked to its core by a string of December shootings.

On December 14, a shooter killed his mother and then, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killed 20 children and 7 adults, including himself.

On December 21, another shooter in Frankstown Township, Pennsylvania, fatally shot three people and then was killed in a shootout.

But before either of those events, on December 11 a gunman opened fire in Clackamas Town Center—a mall just a couple of miles from my home in Portland, Oregon— killing two people and then himself.

I remember standing on my front porch, surrounded by Christmas lights, watching the police and press helicopters circling overhead in the dusk.

The innocence of Christmas was lost for me that night.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of anticipating Christ—the one who came to save humanity once and for all. It is supposed to be a time when schools and malls are filled with laughter and singing and visits from Santa.

Not a time of screaming and running for cover.

Not a time of of loved ones grieving over bloodied bodies.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

The next day I drove over to the scene of the shooting, just to be there. As I drove, the radio was playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Casting Crowns version). It wasn’t the first time I had heard it, but this time it struck me at the deepest level.

As local folks tried to comprehend and grieve the ravages of the shootings, I thought of Longfellow struggling to understand and grieve the ravages of war, including his own son’s injury.

Then I thought of the very first Christmas—a time that was equally dark. In first-century Palestine, there was suffering, oppression, and terrorism. There was prejudice, hatred, and violence.

Just as in 1864.

Just as in 2012.

Just as in 2014.

Since Adam left Eden, it has never been any different.

Yet in the darkness, the bells proclaim that Christ was born to deliver the world from sin, and to set all things right.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Longfellow never lost faith because of the paradox of a beautiful world torn by war and violence. Instead, he listened to the bells. And in their joyous clamor, he found hope.

For those glorious bells proclaimed that God is here; he sees pain and injustice; and one day he will reconcile all things to himself.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

In ancient Eden, in first-century Palestine, and in America today, the darkness and self-destruction of this world was, is, and always will be overcome by Jesus, the Light.

Casting Crowns Perform ‘I Heard The Bells.’ from casting-crowns on GodTube.


* From the database of Longfellow poems at (a website of the Maine Historical Society). It should be noted that when the poem was set to music as a carol, Longfellow’s third stanza (“Till, ringing, singing on its way…”) was moved to the end and his fourth and fifth stanzas were omitted.

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New life in the zombie apocalypse, part 2: Defining “alive”

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.

As we continue our spiritual journey through the zombie apocalypse, let’s consider the zombies themselves. To me, the most intriguing aspect of zombies is the nature of their existence (I know, zombies don’t really exist – but it’s a metaphor, so hear me out).

Zombie-EvolutionZombies, in contrast to human survivors, are often described as the “living dead” – subhuman beings who seem to be alive, yet not alive. How can they exist in two incompatible states at once? Yet in a zombie story, they do. The story pulls us “outside the box” and hands us a paradox. It twists what we know. It forces us to consider the definition of life: What is life? What is living? And what does it mean to be truly alive?

The definition of life is, of course, endlessly debated. However, if we stay “inside the box,” we might define life by simple measures – such as, say, the presence of brain waves and a heartbeat.

But there are huge gray areas. For example, both zombies and humans may exhibit brain waves and heartbeats, yet without being fully alive.

In the opening credits of Shaun of the Dead, a zombie comedy (a paradox in and of itself), the camera pans across several routine scenarios – commuters waiting for a bus, cashiers scanning groceries, hoodlums shuffling down the street – all on autopilot, without thought or awareness.

All of these people are technically alive, engaged in what some might call the drudgery of everyday existence. Yet they look no more alive than the zombies who appear later in the film. They intentionally beg the question: is there really any difference between the living dead and the living dead? What is the difference between a live person working mindlessly for some-thing to eat, and a dead person searching brainlessly for some-one to eat?

A spirit.

This was illustrated in the first season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead. At the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the last remaining scientist shows visitors a brain scan of his last test subject as she dies and slowly turns into a zombie. He explains that all parts of the brain that “make you you” become black on the screen, indicating death. However, after a few minutes a tiny part of the brain that controls basic motor functions begins to show renewed activity. Conclusion: the spirit—the personality, the humanity—has left the body. The only part “living” is the body, the shell. And its only goal is to find sustenance. For some inexplicable reason, that sustenance consists solely of the living.

This is a profound concept, indeed, when we consider God breathing his spirit—life—into the first human. It tells us we humans are unique, special, created in God’s image. Without that God-breath, there is no true life.

However, as shown in Shaun of the Dead, even the living can be fully alive or only partially alive. After getting off the plane from my disastrous postgraduate oral defense, I was technically “alive”—I had a pulse and a few readable brain waves; my basic motor functions worked, though with more effort than before; and Jesus was still living inside me.

Yet like a zombie I shuffled through the next few years, numb and dead, attacking innocent people to feed my inner monster of rage and self-pity. My existence consisted of moments of anger, followed by bouts of weeping. Finally, my days devolved into standing at the edge of the abyss, staring into the blackness before me. I was certain the previous seven years were the climax of my life, and I was now just waiting to rot.

But one question haunted me—a typical job interview question: “What do you see yourself doing five years from now?” How does a zombie answer that question? I really needed a job, but my self-confidence was flushed down a British loo. The real answer—the answer I couldn’t say—was: “I don’t know. I am just trying to survive to the end of the day.”

I had a spirit, but I wasn’t living.

So I will take the definition of life one step further. Life is more than brainwaves, a heartbeat, and a spirit. It also requires vision, passion, and hope.

That’s what I lacked: hope. A voice to guide me, to snap me out of my trance of hopelessness and pull me away from the edge of the abyss. Sadly, we often can’t do this for ourselves. Maybe you too have been killed by hopelessness and rejection. Maybe you too have settled for “good enough”—which is often not that great.

So how does a zombie come back to life? I can’t answer that for everyone, but I can relate a few things that have been helpful for me personally. Here is what I suggest.

First, find within yourself a seed of self-awareness to acknowledge, to yourself and God, exactly where you are. Denying our zombie state will only entrench it, so we must first admit it. Remember, God is not bothered or intimidated by this admission.

Second, take one tiny step of repentance away from the abyss and toward Christ, who is true life. One step, however slight, is enough to shift our focus off our own anger and self-pity and onto Christ.

Third, commit to an intimate community of Christ-followers who will pray for you, support you, and allow you to heal in God’s time.

Fourth, don’t waste time asking, “Why?” In a zombie apocalypse, that question almost never gets answered. Ask instead, “What now?” In other words, whatever happened is now in the past. It can’t be undone and the “why” question only amplifies the hopelessness. You are in a new reality. It’s uncharted and scary. But God is there also. To paraphrase Henry Blackaby: Find out where God is working (and believe me, in this zombie apocalypse, there are oodles of places where he is at work), and go join him.

In the zombie apocalypse, the zombies are not ill; they are truly dead and cannot be revived. However, God is a God of resurrection. I am proof that God can resurrect zombies and breathe new life into them.

In Christ, death is never final.

Not even in the zombie apocalypse.OCREk

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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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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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