“I Remember the Day…”

Writing admission essays to seminaries is, in small ways, declaring your identity. In the act of answering questions or prompts, you find yourself defining what you believe as concisely as possible and mapping out what you hope to achieve with a degree from the seminary you’re applying to. Who I am and what I hope to do have been milling through my mind a lot recently, which I think is why I haven’t written anything for a small while. Yet during Sunday morning’s message from Scott Lamb, I think I finally got something settled.

He was speaking out of John 3:1-8, a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. This is also a passage I had studied a while back when I was writing a research paper on Christian baptism. Although most of the scholars I read who had commentary on this passage said Jesus wasn’t discussing baptism in literal terms, it’s still an important passage for Christian identity. As Scott told us Sunday morning, there is more going on in what Jesus says to Nicodemus than baptism or any religious rite for that matter.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” John 3:3

Such a puzzling thing to say. You see, Nicodemus didn’t inherently understand Jesus as saying that one needs to become a Christian in order to see God’s kingdom; “born again” did not yet equate with “Christian” – if “Christian” was even a term used in their time. So what on earth could Jesus possibly mean by telling Nicodemus he needs to be “born again”?

Something Scott mentioned later in his message gave me a clue. He was talking about identity and how we try to find it in strange places. He said, “Do you find your identity in what you can do or do you find it in what Jesus did?” In other words, do we try to find our identity by what we do, what we have, who we’re friends with, or what people say about us? Or do we find it in what Jesus did, what He has, who He is, and what He says about us? Being born again isn’t simply getting baptized; it is accepting Jesus’ words over us.

Earlier, before Scott’s message, we sang a song that hits pretty close to home for me. A couple years ago I was on a retreat with Cross Training and when we sang that song, which I had only heard a couple times before, I had certain flash backs to earlier points in my walk with God. The song is called “I Remember,” and it was written by a few folks from Enter the Worship Circle and mostly by a man named Aaron Strumpel. According to their website, the song was inspired by Psalm 77, which, after reading it late last night, I have found to be a wonderful declarative statement. As for the song, though, its words and melodies struck chords in my heart as we sang on that retreat two and a half years ago.

“I remember the day You called my name, You said I was Your child” reminded me of the night I had been praying at another retreat and saw visions of myself as a child running into my Father’s arms – a sensation I had never experienced. It was a night I wept for joy at being named a son of God.

“I remember the day You wrote the words, You wrote the book of love” stirred deep emotions over the numerous times I’ve read verses and passages that moved me beyond words and drove me into deeper studies of God. As many of you know, I love to read, but there has never been nor ever will be a text that evokes so much emotion and intrigue out of me as the Bible does. I know it’s confusing and mysterious and sometimes outrageous with what it says, but I love it. I cannot not read it.

“I remember Your deeds, O Dad, my God, I think I’ll trust in You” stirred so much in me that night. “Your deeds” sent a flashback to the night in middle school when I sat alone in my room with a pair of scissors in my hand ready to kill myself. “O Dad my God” is such a painfully wonderful phrase. Painful because I’ve never called anyone “dad” and wonderful because I get to call God my dad. Even writing about that last line now simply stirs so much inside me.

Heading into Scott’s message, I was already emotionally engaged due to that song. So when Scott asked us if we find our identities in what we do or in what Jesus did, I knew what Jesus was talking about when He said we need to be “born again.” Whatever we were, whatever we had, whatever we did, whatever other people once said about us (and we believed) – it’s been tossed in Jesus’ empty tomb. We are sons and daughters of God.

“If there’s anything you take away from today’s message – know that Jesus is desperately in love with you. And that is all you need to know,” Scott told us yesterday.

We live today because God loves. He loved us before the world saw the light of day, before sin came along and messed it all up, and before we decided to turn away from Him. He loved us in the most crucial moment: on the cross, begging that we be forgiven for we know not what we do. So whatever job we have, whatever profession we give ourselves, or whatever degrees we may attain – we are sons and daughters of God.

Our identities begin and end with Him. Not us.

“Doves You send to fly overhead/My son I am so well pleased,” – “I Remember,” Enter the Worship Circle

“I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?” – Psalm 77:11-13

God bless.

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It’s Not About You…

I almost didn’t go to Cross Training last night. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve missed it this year – heck, not even this month. But my reasoning last night as to why I didn’t want to go was different than every other week. It was much more personal.

Every year around Valentine’s Day, Tony takes a week or two to discuss sex and relationships. Last week he brought in a guest speaker, Clint, to speak about sex and I imagine it was a good message (like I said, attendance has been minimal). But this week it was his turn and he decided to talk about relationships. And that’s why I didn’t want to go: I don’t like to talk about relationships.

Why then talk about them now? Because I had a good heart-to-heart with God a few hours before Cross Training last night and it ultimately influenced me to go. You see it all starts with this deep, oftentimes uncontrollable, desire to marry. I want a wife. I want kids. I want to be someone I didn’t often see growing up: A loving husband and father. Part of the struggle with this desire is that I’m very impatient. Like the Bad Lip Reading of Jim Harbaugh, I’m oftentimes this frustrated, whiny little kid complaining about how he hasn’t had a girlfriend ever and that he’s waited so long and blah, blah, blah.

Usually every time someone asks about if I’m seeing anyone or why I might not be interested in a particular girl, this issue of mine comes to the surface. In those conversations, I quickly clam up and either give short answers or don’t answer at all. And no matter what might happen throughout the rest of the day, all I’m thinking about is how I wish I had someone to get all cuddly with for movies or get excited and giggly when someone asks me about her. And every time I feel that desire, I’m brought to the reality that I don’t have it. It upsets me.

So when the time came to go to Cross Training and hear about how relationships are supposed to work and relive all the frustrations of being single, I sat down with God to explain to Him why I didn’t want to go. I started with the shame and guilt that I feel for having hurt girls in the past. And then I talked about all the times I had been hurt when opening my heart to someone and hearing them tell me how they don’t feel the same. And before I could get to my persuasive conclusion as to why I was justified in not attending last night’s Cross Training, I could hear God whisper to me: “It’s not about you.”

Yes, this sounds insensitive, but you have no idea how much freer I feel having heard that. Why? Because what God pointed me to last night wasn’t something that makes me feel worthless; He pointed me to something that gives me every bit of confidence in the world. He pointed me to the Gospel.

In the past couple of weeks, a group of us from Emmaus Life have been going through this book called the Tangible Kingdom Primer. Its focus is obviously God’s kingdom and what has – not surprisingly – come up time and time again is the definition of the Gospel. What is it? Is it a ticket to heaven because of some prayer we pray or statement of faith we sign off on? Is it a checklist of various things God wants us to believe and do in order for us to earn His favor? Or is it a self-help phrase that we should use in order to get over our depression and insecurities? Well, yes, it’s partially those things, but definitely not limited to them. It is believing in the redemptive actions of Jesus on the cross as a model to follow in our every day lives.

What were those redemptive actions? Yes, He was flogged and then crucified, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What happened before that? He healed, He taught, He fed people, and He washed His disciples’ feet. In His time, that was a job reserved for the slaves of slaves – the lowest of the low – not for kings. And yet here Jesus was in John 13 stooping down to clean the feet that followed Him.

His sacrifice on the cross must never be minimized from what it was and is: Our atonement. But a king’s intentional death is meant to wake people up and consider the life the king lived – after all, how else could you truly understand what the king died for the in first place?

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” – Matthew 20:26-28

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” – Matthew 16:24

Jesus’ Gospel is about nothing else but service and sacrifice. And no, He does not mean serving yourself or sacrificing for yourself; He means to imply that it is not about you, but rather the people who need you.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,’” – Matthew 9:36-38

And this is a message that applies to everyone – even the single hopeful-romantics like me. Being a good coworker, friend, or spouse doesn’t begin when you realize what you want; it begins when you realize what you must give.

God bless.

Notes From Black Butte Part Two: Engineering Conducive Environments…

Last night our guest speaker Saul outlined the kinds of themes and ideas that we’d be discussing throughout the weekend. For those who read my last post, it does seem odd that I’d talk about the second day of the retreat first and then the first day second, but really, my thoughts weren’t completely formed until after this morning’s message. In other words, I didn’t get much out of last night’s message until after this morning.

What he talked about last night had a lot to do with preparation, but there was a specific aspect to it. In my last post I talked about the kind of preparation we can do on a day to day basis and I used Oregon’s “win the day” motto as an analogy to help convey how effective daily preparation can be. But that motto for Oregon only works within an environment conducive to a football team winning. Likewise, spiritual preparation only works if we’re also taking the time and commitment to creating an environment conducive to encountering God and bringing His kingdom, His real life, to real people.

Saul talked about the structure of Autzen stadium and how it was built for loud fans to become louder still. “Win The Day” is plastered all over the sides on the field. Players weekly dawn the latest in Nike’s athletic apparel not only to promote their brand, but to promote a culture of winning. What Saul points out as the difference between the environments we ought to be engineering for encountering God and the environment Nike engineers for winning is that we seek to win even in defeat. To those devoted to Christ, “winning” no longer has the meaning the world gives it. Instead, winning means having shared Christ – having glorified God whether your team won or lost.

I find this idea of engineering environments incredibly challenging. It’s challenging because it’s the bigger plan to living out God’s commands. It’s like planning a big event like a wedding; many people work on different things, but it all comes together for one purpose: to provide the most conducive environment for the bride, groom, and their families to celebrate a major new chapter in their lives. In a like manner, if the goal is to encounter God in a consistent way that produces an eternal process of transformation, then there are several different aspects required in order to engineer an environment that draws people together to seek God.

Saul pointed us to the average Sunday morning at church. In many churches, there’s a worship team, a welcoming team, a team of pastors ministering to all sorts of people, and even a team of people making sure there’s fresh coffee. And this isn’t only for big churches; this happens every week at Emmaus Life, just a much small scale. But the point is there are different people doing different things to create an environment for encountering a God with real life, so that our lives can be eternally transformed.

Last post I was wondering how well I was preparing myself for life’s tests. This post I’m wondering how my own preparation fits into a bigger purpose. What am I building or helping build that helps promote the kind of environment where people see and experience God? And if I’m not building something, where could I help?

Notes From Black Butte Part One: Flood Preparations…

Having grown up on the coast, I remember there being several things to do before a storm arrived. Get the candles out, check the flashlight batteries, and find all the blankets you could. Power outages on the coast are common and can last for days at a time. One year when I was home for Christmas break we had an outage last for almost three days. Some years (when I wasn’t home for the break) they lasted for four or five days.

Between last night and this morning in Black Butte for the annual Cross Training winter retreat, guest speaker Saul has directed our attention to how well or not well we’re preparing our souls for an encounter with God. For those who don’t know, Cross Training is a Fellowship of Christian Athletes ministry for the University of Oregon. Saul is a former d-lineman for UO and knows what it means to prepare his body for athletic performance. And while he has geared his messages to the athletes, anyone who has ever wanted to be good at something can relate.

For instance, I love to write. And in order to get better at it, I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy every day practicing my craft. But this writing on a daily basis just for the sake of writing on a daily basis; it’s preparation. I’m preparing myself with my writing abilities for possibly something bigger. I’m preparing myself for if/when I get an opportunity to publish something beyond a blog. In the same way, whatever we do on a daily basis is preparing our souls for an encounter with God. The question we then must ask, what are we doing?

Whether you’re an Oregon fan or not, you’ve probably heard of Chip Kelly and his move to the NFL. It’s very sad news for Duck fans because he has been so beloved for what he’s done in his time here in Oregon. And yet he became so beloved because of a simple motto: win the day. Chip believes that if you practice as though you were in a game, you’d feel less pressure when game time arrived, so you’d be able to perform better. So if you made up your mind and devoted your focus to winning the day, you’d be better prepared for game time and more able to perform better.

And given Chip’s record as the Oregon head coach, I’d say it’s a pretty effective motto.

When it comes to seeking God, it’s no different. How well we practice our walk with Christ each day influences our encounters with Him directly. What does it look like to practice our walk with Christ? Matthew 7:24-27 gives a clue:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Jesus says that those who listen to Him and do what He says will be prepared for the stormy seasons of life. Just like getting out the candles and blankets for potential power outages, Jesus is sharpening us for the tests we’re about to take. Whether or not we experience a real challenge doesn’t matter; being prepared for those challenges, though, does. Like an English professor of mine always telling us there’d be a quiz in the next class but never giving one; he just wanted to make sure we were doing the readings.

One of the questions for today, this weekend, and heck for the rest of my life is how well am I preparing myself for what’s next? How well am I seeking Christ to prepare for the storms or the chances to perform? How ready will I be when the spotlight comes to me?

Training for Godliness, Training for Eternity…

At Cross Training tonight we had a guest speaker. I’ve heard him speak several times before and honestly hearing him never gets old. His name is Clint McKinnis and he’s from Indiana. He came over here to Oregon several years ago (the first time he spoke at Cross Training was at the house I used to live in on 12th and Mill Alley) because he and his wife felt the call to come plant a church here. His message tonight was, as per usual, powerful.

Clint talked about training for a purpose. In a group of current and former athletes, this kind of message resonates sharply. You don’t show up to practice five days a week just to show up to practice five days a week. You show up to train and you train for when you compete. Oregon’s football team has had the now-infamous motto of “Win the Day,” which, for them, extends well beyond Saturday. It means you’re training to win long before it comes time to compete. Clint took this whole idea of training to perform well and applied it spiritually.

Why do we pray? Why do we read Scripture? Why do we meet up with fellow church goers on Sunday or during the week (or both)? What’s the point of doing all the Christian stuff? One of the verses Clint referenced tonight gives the answer:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified,” – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

As Clint put it, we’re training for eternity. It’s not as though worldly ambitions do not matter (i.e. being a good writer or teacher or athlete, etc.), but rather that eternal ambitions matter more. As I listened to his message a question formed in my mind: Do you then keep the secular life and the spiritual life separate? Is it like showing up to a part-time job at a coffee shop in the morning and then going to train for the Olympics in the afternoon? Are the two lifestyles completely irrelevant to each other? Another verse Clint quoted tonight indicates that this isn’t so:

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come,” – 1 Timothy 4:7-8

Our training for eternity permeates every bit of our lives. It isn’t as though God wants us to do the Christian thing on Sunday or Tuesday or whatever day we gather with Christian brothers and sisters; but rather, He wants us to follow Him even when no one is around. In fact, I’d say that He wants us to follow His commands especially when we’re alone.

Seeing this Christian life through the eyes of Paul (author of both 1 Corinthians and, according to tradition, 1 Timothy) we then see that when we take up the cross of Christ, we take up an entirely different identity. We’re no longer writers, teachers, sprinters, cross country runners, Republicans, wide receivers, swimmers, gymnasts, Democrats, students, retail associates, or whatever else we might put on a résumé. We’re Jesus’ disciples first and then everything else thereafter. We’re first defined by the King whose Kingdom is not of this world. We’re defined by someone whom we didn’t vote for, but rather someone who voted for us – who voted to sacrifice Himself on our behalf.

As an athlete trains every day to perform when it matters most, we train ourselves in Godliness for when it matters most. The tricky part, though, is that those moments aren’t scheduled. There’s no set time to put on the Christian uniform; we’re to carry our crosses every moment of every day. Realizing this then makes even the mundane secular tasks like showing up to work, doing our homework, or exercising when we’d rather stay in bed all the more important. Paul, then, isn’t saying that eternal ambitions are the most important and secular ones don’t matter at all; he’s saying that secular ambitions matter more in light of eternal ambitions.

To end, I’ll ask the question that Clint asked us tonight: What are some things you can do to train for godliness? Write about it, talk about it, or pray about it, but whatever you do, commit to it. Your life depends on it.

God bless.

Church, God, and Rest…

It’s been three weeks since I last went to church. This is the longest streak of not going to church that I’ve ever had (since becoming a Christian) and honestly, I’m a little bummed out. Sure, it’s kind of a self-inflicted wound when you work so much that you’re either scheduled for a shift on Sunday morning or you’re so exhausted that you need the rest. But church, not so long ago, used to be a major part of my every-day life – not just Sunday morning. Yet now it isn’t.

As I have come to find out the hard way, being apart from a church community will leave you very alone. If it wasn’t for my roommates and my occasional visits to Cross Training (an athlete’s ministry) I probably wouldn’t have any contact with fellow believers at all. I might run into an old friend from Calvary or CCF at some point, but brief encounters are not enough to sustain one’s spiritual life. We need family.

This hit me hard late last night. Within the last five days I’ve worked 49 hours – 33 ½ of which have come in the last three days. Safe to say I’m a little exhausted. My roommates are staying up in Portland for Spring Break and have been gone since Tuesday night. So last night I was physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually drained and had no one to hang out with. Not sure if it was just the stress, the exhaustion, the loneliness, or all the above, but I wept last night.

A few years ago I lived with 8 other guys. No matter what time of day it was or which week of school we were in, there was always something going on. A birthday party, a movie night, a beer night – whatever – there was never not something to do. I miss those days because I was hardly ever alone. And with that many guys (all of whom were involved with a church in some way) there was also always someone to talk to about spiritual stuff. Once again, I didn’t have that last night.

I could go on to talk about how much I miss my close friends from high school, Calvary Fellowship, my brothers and sisters, or even the dorms, but you see my point: You can’t go very far in life without family and friends. You might think you’re happy, but if you’re constantly alone, at some point you’re going to realize your happiness was simply a façade. Money, possessions, reputations all mean nothing when it comes to receiving love. They can’t be there for you when you have a rough day at work; they can’t take away whatever painful childhood memories you may have; and they definitely cannot give you any kind of peace. People, however, can.

No, I’m not saying we don’t need God; I’m saying the exact opposite. We do need God – He’s the one who provides everything we have, even the stuff we thought we earned for ourselves. But we also need people, which is why the church exists. It’s God moving through His people – His faithful children – to bring about His kingdom of peace.

It doesn’t really help me that I’m sort of without a church home. Yeah, I have plenty of friends attending various God-loving churches throughout Eugene, but no matter where I go I’m still going to feel like a guest instead of a member (and by “member” I mean a family member; not an official “member” of a church). And yet this is the exact thing God is challenging me with: Make new friends and become part of a new family. In years past, I had it easy, but now is a season of life where I have to work a lot to keep my faith in God strong and active.

It’s like Donald Miller says in Blue Like Jazz; if we were alone, we’d go crazy. If we didn’t have someone to talk to, someone to open up to, someone to listen to, someone to pray with, or someone to challenge us, we’d become lost within ourselves. And we would never change.

Friendships and relationships are difficult to make and keep, but without them, we’d have no real life at all. Our hearts might still beat, our lungs would still breathe, but there would be no real, genuine rest. We’d have days off and be able to sleep in, but rest isn’t simply a break from work, although that helps. Rest is a Person and His family. It is God and His children – Christ and His body. Even if we were homeless and had only the clothes on our backs, if we have Christ and His church, we’d still have everything.

God bless.

Dreaming God-Sized Dreams…

Sometimes I wonder if I’m dreaming big enough?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of constantly second-guessing myself. It seemed that the further into my English major I’d go, the more I’d doubt certain aspects of my life. It started out as small, subtle things like if I’d be able to finish reading a certain chapter by the next class period or if I felt ready for the 2-question quiz the next day. And it grew worse: I started doubting my ability to write papers, stories, and essays on midterms. It seems that the critical-thinking tools I had acquired in the classroom were affecting me outside as well.

It could have been a mixture of things going on with my emotions, though. As is typical with fatherless kids, I may not have been receiving enough verbal affirmation. And with whatever encouragement I did receive, I always had that lingering thought, “If you are so good at this (whatever it was), then why did your father leave you? Why did he book it if you really have value?” Bottling those thoughts up made things even worse, too.

When you have issues with your heart and you don’t spill them, no one’s able to reach out and help. That’s why the Proverbs say, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy,” (28:13). More often than not I think God wants to deal with our hearts rather than anything else. Yes, forgiving us of our sins is a part of that, but His sole purpose in having us confess to Him (and others) is to heal us (James 5:16). My sickness wasn’t so much that I didn’t have a dad around, but that I didn’t open up about all the side effects. It’s like having the Swine Flu without going to the doctor; it doesn’t get treated as well as it could.

With our hearts and God’s healing touch, though, it’s much more severe; if we don’t open up before Him, we can’t be healed.

My over-analysis of myself during college was a side affect of the prolonged suppression of the issues in my heart. Doubts were becoming more convincing since I made little or no effort to seek the Doctor about my fatherless wound.

On the retreat to Trinity Lake a couple weeks ago, these side effects came out full throttle. Our speaker that week, Dusty Davis, hit my heart condition head on: He called it the “paralysis of analysis.” He walked into my section of the house boat moments after I had been weeping. Why was I crying? I was terrified of my future. For whatever reason, I felt like I was driving 70 miles an hour through the thick fog of the Golden Gate Bridge. I doubted that I would be able to handle myself now being completely on my own for the first time in my life. “What ifs” cluttered my mind and fear suffocated my heart to the point that no amount of Scripture reading could bring me back.

This “paralysis,” as Dusty described it, is one that disables us to see the possibility, capability, and overall sovereignty of God. We analyze our lives and what could happen so much that whatever conclusions we draw up become the only possible outcomes.Even though people often told me that “God’s gonna provide,” I just couldn’t come to believe them. I didn’t take God’s agenda into consideration. And then I read through Genesis 48.

To set the scene a little bit, it’s towards the end of the story of Jacob and his son Joseph. Jacob’s other sons had sold Joseph as a slave to the Egyptians and then they had told Jacob that he had died. Jacob was deeply heart-broken and vowed to himself that he wouldn’t let Benjamin – his second son from his late wife, Rachel, and brother to Joseph – out of his sights… ever. Like Jacob, I had let the wounds of my heart keep me from dreaming God-sized dreams.

I was terrified of the future rather than excited.

With his death just around the corner, Jacob said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children, too,” (Gen. 48:11). Jacob had accepted the near-sighted, fear-laden fate that he imagined and had those dreams obliterated by what God had in store.

I can’t sit here and say that I should start expecting to be blown away by what God has planned for me. But what I know I cannot do is accept the fate my fears are writing for me. I cannot allow all the various things that I think will happen – all the “what ifs” – to convince me that none of my heart-felt dreams will come true.

The truth is that anything is possible with God if we just believe.