Saved, Not Excused

When someone we love is hurting, we hurt. Right now I have someone in my family who’s hurting, and it absolutely breaks my heart.

I’m a guy, of course, and as a guy, I want to fix things, and when it’s someone else’s heart that’s broken, when someone close to me is living (as my brother Glenn says, channelling Los Lobos) in “the deep dark hole that leads to nowhere,” well, I want to fix it and make it all better. But I can’t. It’s not something I can fix.

As we grow, we learn things like the concept of “circles of control” and “circles of concern.” A loved one’s personal anguish is very much in my circle of concern, but unfortunately, it’s not in my circle of control–I can’t take away the darkness or blunt the pain. It’s a hard lesson to learn, to have to surrender that to God and ask the four hardest words in the English language: “Thy will be done.”

How can this be? As Christians, aren’t we saved? Redeemed? Rescued? Why do we have to endure hardship and pain, or perhaps even worse, why do those close to us have to do so?

I have to remind myself, that’s all true: we are saved, redeemed, and rescued. But what’s saved, redeemed and rescued is our soul, our connection with the Almighty–giving us a cushy, problem-free life here on earth was never part of Jesus’ promises to us. In fact, much of 1 Peter serves to remind us that suffering will come our way: that life in Christ doesn’t excuse us from what this broken world will still dish out. We’re saved, redeemed, rescued, all right, but that doesn’t give us a hall pass from the suffering of this life.

Intellectually, I know that. It’s hard to hold onto when it’s someone close to you who’s doing the hurting.

I try to fortify through prayer, through bringing the power of Jesus against the darkness and to ask for the Lord’s healing power. Some days I think it’s working. Other days, the darkness seems to win. I know in the end, the darkness can’t win: I know who won the war already. But some of these individual battles, they look pretty close to me. And in the midst of the fight, sometimes, that’s all we can see.

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Doing The Trim

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Hebrews is our men’s Bible study group that meets Sunday nights over beers at a local sports bar (He-brews, get it?). Some weeks ago, Dave said he wanted us to move beyond just talk, and to go into mission. So we connected with a group at Burke United Methodist to participate in Rebuilding Together, where we had the opportunity to help fix up a townhouse for an older gentleman who wasn’t able to take care of it anymore. This was a tremendous opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ: to use our gifts of time and skill to help someone who needed them. When we arrived, people were painting the outside, landscaping, fixing the roof, and laying new flooring in three rooms. Our group had the opportunity to lay flooring in the master bedroom. But first, I had to paint the bathroom. Well, not the whole thing: the trim.

Generally speaking I like painting. I love using the roller and covering a large wall with bright new color. I absolutely hate doing the trim. The tiny little detail work, how long it takes to finish…so very frustrating to me. But here I was, assigned to put two coats on the trim in a tiny bathroom that clearly hadn’t seen any paint in a decade or two.

God has a funny way of working sometimes. The things we hate to do, sometimes he puts right in front of us. To serve this gentleman, the homeowner, I have to put aside my own feelings about trim work and focus on doing a better job without complaint. It’s a great way of helping teach humility and helping diminish our own selfishness, to become more like Christ.

Sometimes to be Christ’s hands and feet, it means I have to do the trim.

Lord, thank you for once again pushing me to serve others, and in doing to, to put myself aside all the more. May Christ be seen in me even in the things I don’t like, because I do them in his name.

The Call of the Water

I just love being able to get away and go down by the water. Whether it’s a river or, ideally, the ocean, there’s something calming and peaceful about a gorgeous sunny day and sparkling water drifting by.

This weekend my bride and I celebrated our anniversary at a waterfront inn in Maryland. It wasn’t long at all before all the stresses of the workweek, and the life we left (temporarily) behind, could all fade away to the gentle sound of the lapping of the Chesapeake Bay.

On the two-hour drive here, Mary asked, out of nowhere, if I’d ever contemplated getting a vacation home. It turns out we both have: someplace we can come to again and again to recharge and to retire to, perhaps, in several years. As we talked, we discussed the pros and cons of the beach versus the mountains, both of which we enjoy. Later, at the water’s edge at the inn, I commented that I think the beach is the better choice.

I think I’m drawn to the water because I need that peace. I spend ten hours a week just commuting, plus another fifty at the office, and that’s before the time required to be any sort of dad to two teens. The world gets hectic, it pulls us in, it pushes our eyes down to just what’s in front of us instead of the majesty around us. And being able to spend a weekend down by the water often is enough to let me face a few more weeks of the world. The soft clanging of sailboat lines on masts, the bell of a boat heading out, the waves…I can feel my blood pressure dropping by the minute.

Water feeds a spiritual need. It speaks to me in a different language than the mountains do: to be honest, it’s a more fundamental one. In our baptismal liturgy we speak of Christ having been born in the water of a womb and then baptised in the waters of the river, to become the living water that he promised the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:14. When I’m connected to the water, I’m not only able to relax, but I’m also reminded of that living water and what it can mean to me in my life. It also reminds me, visibly, that the things that are won’t always be: I can’t look at the always-moving, always-changing surface of a river or the ocean without being reassured that whatever “the world” screams at us is transient, impermanent, and I can let it all go.

Jesus taught all around water, and used water frequently in his teaching. He called fishermen to his side, he walked on water, he calmed the sea. And when he had returned from the grave, he met his disciples by the shores of the sea, to connect with them one more time. “Let’s go down to the river to pray,” the old spiritual goes, and for me, there’s plenty of healing there, plenty of renewal, plenty of strength to lift my eyes past “the world” and back onto Christ again.

Genuine Worship

This past weekend was Youth Sunday at our church, so our youth group put on the entire service for three services (except the blessing of the Communion, that they wisely left to the pros). Our youth group has slowly grown and has slowly been retaining more and more high schoolers, which has been a blessing to see.

The kids did an amazing job. Two girls (including my daughter) played guitar while five others sang contemporary Christian praise, my son and one other boy were lay leaders, and another girl preached a great sermon about “Cleaning Jesus’ Bathroom.” She used the example of how she and others had cleaned a communal bathroom at an orphanage, and how their team leader had told them that “because you had done thus to the least of these, you had done it unto” Jesus.

I have to say, this was the most honest, genuine bit of worship I’d had the privilege to experience in awhile. Absolutely everything was heartfelt, from the enthusiasm of the music to the soloists’ singing, to the message to the little oopses of people not familiar with having to do these things but yet doing their absolute best to bring worship. It did my heart good, as a dad, to see my two teens publicly sharing their faith, and they had a great impact on all us old folks in the pews–I had several comments about how we need to do this more often, to let the youth bring their message.

I am reminded of Revelation 5, where all of creation joins in full-throated, no-holds-barred, wide-open, entire-hearted worship of God in heaven. The kids brought a taste of that to us last weekend, and it was beautiful.

It also leads me to reflect on what happens when worship becomes routine; when it’s not enthusiastic, when it’s just going through the motions. We get stale, we get bored, we start to slack in our attendance and we start to fall away. It’s when we get to experience genuine worship, a smidgen of a taste of what we’ll get to enjoy in eternity, that our hearts quicken and our souls gladden. Thank you, SUMC youth, for bringing a taste of full worship to us, and may we work to bring that more often!

“It’s MY Life!” (…Isn’t It?)

Stereotypically, the Christian youth grows up in some connection to the church, then falls away as a teenager, and somewhere in the early/mid twenties begins to feel a tug back to Christ. In part, I think, that returning is sparked by the realization that I think we all come across in our twenties–that the life we thought we were guaranteed as kids is hard, and maybe isn’t guaranteed to turn out the way we thought it should. We wanted to go to This College, and were turned down. We wanted to get a job in a certain career path, couldn’t even get on the first rung of that ladder, and find ourselves doing something else we hate just to pay the bills. Or we do get started on that career, only to find it’s not what we thought it would be, and we’re foundering, frustrated, looking for solutions.

At the heart of that frustration is the conviction that perhaps every teenager yelled at a parent at some time: “It’s MY life!” And of course to some extent it is: once we’re on our own, we make our own path, and our parents aren’t there to hold our hands in quite the same way. But fundamentally, as teens and young adults we cling to that certainty that the life we lead is our own, nobody else’s, and therefore we’re the star of it–and when things go wrong, it’s unsettling.

It’s unsettling because we realize we’re not in control. There’s so much that goes on in our lives that we cannot control, and when those forces veer off the script we’ve written for ourselves, we get frustrated. It’s my life! Why can’t I control all these things? Why are these things happening to me? We look around for the pause button, we want to yell “Cut!” and reposition the actors and try that scene again. But unfortunately, as Anna Nalick sang in Breathe (2 AM), “No one can find the rewind button, girl.”

Let me offer another perspective: Perhaps it’s not entirely all about you after all. If we consider the possibility that instead of being the center of the universe, that we’re not, then that frustration can be dramatically reduced if not eliminated. Perhaps, then, we’re supporting actors in a larger epic adventure–we’re not the star, God is–and we’re part of his story instead.

What a relief to not have to be in control of everything! I remember driving with my son one time when he was perhaps four, and being just so frustrated by traffic and running late and fuming…from his carseat in the back, I heard him try to calm me down: “It’s OK, Daddy. You’re not in charge of the traffic. Are you in charge of the trees, or the sky?”

Whoa. MAJOR moment where the Word came to me through my child. No, little man, I’m not in charge. Someone else is, and when I surrendered to that truth, I opened up a world of relief and change. It’s not my story, it’s God’s, and I can hand it all over to him.

But what does God’s story look like, and what’s my role then? More on that next time.