Merry Christmas???

I’m going to come right out and say it. Christmas is far from my favorite time of year. I hate the rush, the constant push of advertisers, the endless Christmas songs that speak of what it could be, when the reality is that it is something far more shallow. Of course, my working in retail doesn’t help with that.

Add to that that my daughter Anna has been struggling a lot over the last few weeks. She wonders why she can’t be “normal.” She wonders if she will ever be happy again. She has been struggling with cutting again. In fact, last week while I was on air recording our weekly cigar podcast, The AshHoles (yeah, that’s the name they gave it, but it’s actually a very fun show and I enjoy doing it. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing podcasts in the country), she sent me a picture of her hand with needles stuck in it. She was begging for help. Fortunately, my dad lives close by and was able to head right over, and I left for home as soon I could. That was a hard night.

In a word, the last few weeks have been brutal. More so for my wife who is with her much more than I of late. It is hard for her to see her daughter struggle so hard. She struggles with the voices in her mind that try to convince her that it is her fault. Of course none of it is. She could no more cause Anna’s mental illness than she could alter the rotation of the earth. But a mother’s love and personal connection makes those thoughts hard to fend off sometimes. Truth be told, she is not happy with God’s providence right now. She feels ignored at best and punished at worst. Will things ever get better? Will things ever change? Her questions are very similar to Anna’s.

I keep this picture of Anna on my tablet.

It was taken in September. She and I were able to enjoy some daddy daughter time in Wolfboro, NH. We were staying with some friends who took us out for a ride on their boat. She was, as the picture testifies, genuinely happy. I loved the joy on her face. I wanted to remember it. I wanted her to remember it. I wanted her to remember that it is not always Dark; that joy was not something she never experienced. I wanted to remind her that her heavenly Father would not leave her in the Dark, or forget about her. These times have not come to stay, they have come to pass. How or when I do not know, but I know that they will. That is what that picture means to me.

For similar reasons, I have been learning that is why it is important to keep in the Word and to pray. Keeping in the Word reiterates God’s promises of grace, love, forgiveness, and redemption. Reading Scripture I find not only God’s promises, but the stories of people whom I identify with. I’m sure Isaac was wondering what was going on when he was on the altar. Joseph, I am sure had times when he looked around the foreign prison he was in and wondered if the dreams of God’s blessings from his youth were more delusion than prophecy. I can only imagine what Jonah was thinking when salvation from drowning meant being eaten by a gigantic fish. And we all know that Job was asking the same questions, and clearly wondered if death was preferable to living through his crap. But in all these cases, God came through. They all found God’s mercies abounding on the other side.

Rotten circumstances, lousy people, headaches and heartaches cannot undo what God is doing. They cannot kill the grace that is in your life. But they can cover them like smog and lead you to think they are gone. Prayer, I have been learning builds thankfulness and reminds you of the blessings that God has been planting in your life. They are still there! Smog may hide the Golden Gate Bridge, but it can’t make it disappear. Scripture and prayer act like the wings of a plane that can fly you above the clouds and let you see that the Son is still shining.

That said, do not think for one minute that prayer and Scripture reading are going to make your problems go away. Oh, some might that is true. But that is not always the case. And as tempting as it may be to believe that if we prayed better, or studied the Bible harder, or had purer faith that our problems, doubts, and pains would evaporate like the morning dew, you need to know that that idea is categorically false. This is one of the points of 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (NIV), Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Sometimes, to grow in grace we need to see how weak we are, how powerless we are, and how dependent on the Father’s grace we are.

Lessons from the ER

Sunday night I found myself at the hospital with Anna again. Her feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger have been uncontrollable. She was at the point where she did not trust herself to not hurt herself again and wanted to go to the hospital. I went with her. I was there with her until Monday evening. It took that long to find an open placement for her. But against the odds she got one.

What a way to spend Memorial day weekend right? But I learned a lot over that 21 hour wait:
Again I learned what a privilege it is to be with Anna and to advocate for her and stand with her when she is weak.
I learned that I can still do all-fighters and/or function on very little sleep.
I learned that being there with Anna meant everything to her.
I learned that when I am punch-drunk tired, I can be very funny.
I learned that you can be both amazingly strong and beautiful and extremely fragile and broken at the same time.
I learned that the prayers of friends and family are effective and necessary to keep me going.
I learned that Anna loves to play with hospital bed controls… especially if they are yours and not hers.
I learned that I do love being her dad. =)
And I learned that right now I can’t be in formal pastoral ministry. Family needs me too much. I can’t give the kind of time and energy to Anna and the rest of my family and also look after a congregation. I need to focus on them right now, and for the foreseeable future. So I have decided to switch gears and stay at Two Guys Smoke Shop and not consider fulltime ministry positions at this time. I will still take advantage of speaking and preaching opportunities, and I will still write and post on my blog here.

Ironically, twenty years ago today, I graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. I was set to go from there into a lifetime of pastoral ministry. Now it looks like I may never go back. When I decided to go to seminary, I went with the attitude that there was no downside to it. At best, I would have the necessary academic credentials to pursue my calling into pastoral ministry. At worst (if you an say worst) I would be well educated in my faith and that would set me up to excel in my own faith and in practice as a husband, father, and worker in Christ’s kingdom.

You see, there is no not being a worker in His kingdom. I don’t see myself as having been demoted or benched. In some ways I feel promoted! We sometimes are guilty of thinking that pastors and missionaries are the ultimate Christians. That, my friends, is not at all the case. In truth the most influential Christian leader, mentor, and spiritual father I have ever met was an insurance salesman! That man loved Jesus better than anyone I know… and that includes all the pastors I know. Never confuse a degree or a title or a position as necessary things to possess in order to do “real” work in the Father’s kingdom. Most kingdom work happens in the everyday, common, and normal places of life where none of those things really come into play… like spending 21 hours in an ER with your anxious and hurting daughter.


A four letter word can make all the difference… but its not the word you think!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach again at a local church. I have about half a dozen messages that I have ready to go when these opportunities arrive. Sometimes, when I am invited to speak a text or theme is picked out for me, but more often than not, that is left to me. I knew a month ago what I would be preaching yesterday. The sermon was Cornered for Grace based on Psalm 13. I have posted that sermon and the audio of one of the times I gave it here. While I was sure that God was moving me to preach it to this congregation, I did not know is how timely it was going to be for me.

It has been a rough week. I have a daughter in the hospital for depression and a spiritual daughter in for the same. We are in the middle of a kitchen remodel that was made necessary by water damage. We have had a devil of a time scheduling a plumber to come in and reconnect everything. You never think about how important a sink and stove are to the mood of the house until they are gone. It is amazing how much stress that can build up, especially in our girls. It has been forever it seems since I have worked on my PhD thesis. The fires keep listing up and the things that need done keep building up.

As usual I agree with Calvin who once quipped…

Calvin & Hobbes - "God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I'm so far behind I will never die.":

Yeah. I totally get that.

I know things are going to work out. The lesson here is to be learning that I am not capable and that Jesus is capable. I am not enough, but Jesus is enough; and because of Jesus I will always have enough. Unfortunately, the only way to be learning that is to be taken to people and places and to problems where it becomes painfully clear that you are not enough and if Jesus does not come to the rescue, you’re sunk! The truth is Jesus has always come through in the past. I have every reason to trust Him for today and tomorrow.

While that is a great truth to be learning, it is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade. Most people when they hear a person tell them the hard things they are going through as they are learning these things, say things like: I’m so sorry. I’ll pray for you. Everything happens for a reason. But I have been learning that sometimes the most helpful thing is to validate the crap.

Let me give an example.

After the service yesterday, I talked with a woman who shared how much the message helped her. She had recently been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. “We all know where that ends up.” She said.

I looked her in the eyes and what came out of my mouth was, “That sucks.”

She blinked in surprise, then gave a deep sigh of relief, smiled and said, “Thank you. It does suck. thank you so much for saying that. That is what I needed to hear.”

I have been learning that sometimes the best way to help people get through the pain, is to validate the pain. We need to give people the grace and space to admit that while everything will be alright, right now it is not alright, and that it hurts. David did it in Psalm 13. Elijah told God he wanted to die. So did Moses at one point. Jeremiah had his share of bad days too. So did Job. Even Jesus asked for the cup of suffering to be taken away if it were possible. That should make it clear that it is okay to not be okay.

Love in the Dark

God in His sovereign wisdom has had me walking through dark, dank, and deep places of late. While I would not say that I myself am experiencing a dark night of the soul, I have family and friends who are; and in a real sense I am in those dark nights with them.

It is easy to say “I love you” and to believe that you mean it when things are pleasant and fun and there is a lot to look forward to. But what about when the green pastures and quiet waters of life are no longer in view; when life becomes arid and barren, or dark and foreboding, unsafe even, where those warm and happy feelings that we often equate with love seem so few and far between?

Ironically, it is not in the light but in the dark that we tend to see the pain and brokenness of heart and soul, both in ourselves and in the people we are walking with. It is in these seasons and circumstances where love is needed the most, that it is the hardest to give and is the most costly.

It is hard because when people are hurting or scared or hopeless they sometimes want to push you away; they will say they do not want or need you, that helping them is pointless, or that things will never change. It is hard to love people when they don’t want it, are unable to acknowledge or accept it, or cannot return it. But it is in these times—more than any other—when love is so hard, that we see just how important love is (even if those we are trying to love can’t), and how badly we need to be loved.

Loving into or out of these difficult places is not only hard but costly. It can be extremely exhausting. It can be heartbreaking. It often costs time that you would normally give to other things. It can cost financially too. It can be isolating because often other people do not understand why it is worth the effort. It may require putting dreams and aspirations on hold. And if you are not careful (and sometimes even when you are) the stress, exertion, and pain can drag you down too.

Love, if we are at all honest with ourselves is far more than just peasant feelings. It is more complicated than that. Just look at 1 Corinthians 13:7 (NIV), It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. The Greek word the NIV translates as “always” literally means “all.” I think the NLT catches the meaning best, Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. A love that lives up to such a description is more than fluffy feel good stuff. Love is fierce, tenacious, strong as steel, and hard as diamonds. Love certainly involves our lighter emotions, but it cannot be simply reduced to them either. For love to never give up, to never lose faith, to always hope, and to endure through every circumstance requires that love produce a loyalty and commitment that makes us want to act on behalf of the people we love. Love without action is nothing more than a shadow of love; it is an empty profession apart from the fruit of action and commitment that proves we truly possess it.

Certainly there is no clearer example of this than the cross, where Jesus was willing endure such extreme pain and humiliation at the hands of men and the omnipotent wrath of His Father for the sins of people who pushed Him away, who thought they did not want or need Him or knew they needed His help, who didn’t want it, were unable to acknowledge or accept it, and could not return it. His love did not shy away when it is hard or costly. I am so thankful that He is willing to love even when it is hard and costly. Where would I be without it? Surely nowhere good. That love breathed light and life into my cold and broken heart. And when His love is in us, our love will prove itself with like fruit.

Love is good in the daytime when life is bright and sunny, but it is no less needed at night when life is hard and painful…and perhaps even more so. I have been learning that this is one of the main reasons God brings us to dark places, so we see our need for the light of love and feel its strength, and so we can bring that same light and strength to those who need it most, especially to those who are walking in the dark, and into places where the strength of love is needed.

Lessons from being let go

So a bit over a week ago, I got a call from my wife Mandi all in tears. She was let go by her employer. She loved what she was doing and the people she was working with. I don’t need to go into the details, but she is not being replaced, her position was cut. It was a real shock to her (and to me too to be honest). We are very much a two income family, and we knew that if she didn’t get work asap we would be in big trouble.

Like you would expect, she was wracking her brain trying to figure out what happened: Did she do something wrong? What could she have done differently? Why would God take away a job that she loved and that fulfilled her so much? Yet I could not help thinking that God had pulled her away from that work for something else that He needed her doing more.

That night, she called her parents to tell them what was going on. As the conversation progressed, they began batting around the idea of hiring her as a CNA for themselves. Her mom has advanced Parkinson’s and her dad is recovering from a mild stroke. They had been paying for 24/7 help through a home health aid service. By the end of the next day, it have been worked out that she would work full time for them. Now she is getting more time with her parents and getting to care for them when they need it most which she has wanted to do and is making the same money she was at her previous job. They feel much more comfortable with Mandi doing all the personal things that need done, she is qualified to do more as a CNA than the home health aids were able to do, and because she is private, they are saving a lot of money and helping us out at the same time which they have wanted to do. It is a big win-win.

We have been learning the importance of looking at events like Mandi losing her job, or water damage from a broken pipe, or not knowing how the bills are going to get paid this month through the lens of faith. I’m not talking a blind irrational kind of faith. I’m talking about faith that God will do what you cannot, that He will provide what you cannot, that He will get you to where He wants you to be when you have no way there. We have been learning that these lessons never get learned. They are not things we mater and move on from. Rather they are lessons that get taken to new and deeper levels throughout your life. At least, that is what I have been learning. Perhaps you have too.

This is what the LORD says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland
(Isaiah 43:16-19, NIV).

And then this happened

As Pharaoh approached, the people of Israel looked up and panicked when they saw the Egyptians overtaking them. They cried out to the LORD, and they said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!'” (Exodus 14:10-12, NLT).

I hate winter. I have made so secret about that. Bad things happen in winter. I mean just yesterday there were three accidents right outside the shop where I work. The third was more surprising. I got a call from a customer that had just left asking if I knew that a car had crashed into our building. I hadn’t heard anything (no one else had either) but I went to the front door to check anyway. I was not expecting what I saw.


Things that make you go “hmmm.”

How does that happen without making any noise?

Business was slow enough with the weather. Having a car in the entry way didn’t help that.

Sometimes life is like that isn’t it? Sometimes things come quietly crashing into our life. We may not even hear it happen. All the sudden we look up and realize things are a mess. Maybe you had something to do wit it, or maybe it just happened.

Times like these have a tendency to highlight our weakness don’t they? We get afraid, we doubt, we question ourselves, we wonder how things will ever get fixed. We wonder how we could have been so blind or stupid or careless or clueless or unlucky.

Please tell me I am not the only person who has felt that way? You know what I’m talking about right?

I have been learning that these are the times when God is working deep in our souls doing work that only He can do. He seems absent, quiet, and unconcerned. But the reality is that He is working where you can’t see. The frustrating thing is that we can’t see what He is doing, it certainly doesn’t feel good, and there are no clear explanations given. That makes these times hard. We want to know what God is doing, why He allows things, why He doesn’t remove things, and what He hopes to gain.

I’m sure that is what the Israelites were thinking in that passage. They though they were free, but now they seemed trapped with no way out. There was no where to run. They couldn’t fight their way out. What was the point of getting out of Egypt if they were just going to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s army?

In these times our work is to let Him work. And that’s work! It takes work to trust, to wait, to sit still.

I am reminded of a time when my daughter Rachel needed stitches in her lip. She was jumping around the living room and slipped and fell into the coffee table. She was two at the time. She was hysterical. When we were in the emergency room getting her stitches, she needed to be held down on the table and her head held still. The doctor and nurses were great. They were very kind. She got some good drugs to numb the pain. But it did not look kind, or feel like she was being helped. To her, she was restrained on a table while a stranger suck her lip with a shot of Novocain and then took a needle and thread to her face. To her God was gone and her parents weren’t helping. To us, we were doing everything we needed to in order to heal her.

We don’t really perceive how we are changing or growing in these times. It isn’t until they are over that we begin to see the fruits of what was done. Are we willing to do the work of resting in God’s hands and trusting in His love and care for us?

No, I’m not fantastic….

Image result for not ok

Apparently my face is not exuding happiness. Several people over the weekend and at church asked what was wrong with me. One person even asked if I was getting divorced. Wow! Nothing could be further from the truth.

But I have had a lot on my mind lately. Major repairs that need done to the house from some water damage. Anna had cut again for the first time in over two years and ended up back in an in-patient therapy program for ten days. Then she broke her ankle. All three girls and Mandi have been sick. Money is tight. I am working to ramp up my pulpit supply calendar to deal with that. That’s just what I’m willing to share, and it doesn’t include friends of mine that I am helping walk through difficult times too.

A friend told me this weekend someone at church asked how he was, to which he responded, “I’m doing alright.”

“Just all right? You should be fantastic!”

“Well, I’m not. I’m just alright.”

Can I be honest? I don’t trust people who are fantastic all the time. That is doubly true of Christians. Problems, challenges, failings, disappointments, surprises, headaches, and heart-brakes are what life is made of. Yes, there is a lot of joy, happiness, successes, and breakthroughs in life too, but it is not all that—and certainly not all that all the time. Being a Christian does not make all your problems go away, nor does it make all your problems magically manageable. It is real work to love. It is painful and costly to be growing in humility, to give grace, and to lift people out of the muck and more of events that threaten to suck them under the riptides of mess.

I think the Church would be a much better place if it were a safe place to talk about our problems, messes, and disappointments openly. I think you would see God work in much more powerful ways, see His grace more clearly, and feel His love more deeply. Not only that, but you would soon see that you are not the only person with problems. And when you hear the problems that other people are dealing with, you may be very happy to have the ones you’ve got!