The Journey Towards a Better Death (and life)

architect-architecture-black-and-white-1537008The better game is one we all play even though it never promises a return.

We pay for the next better, move cities to find the next better, cheat on a spouse to experience the next better. There really is no end in the quest to find this psychological sasquatch.

One of the ways it has shown up in my life over the years is with church and employment.

Southerners are especially skilled in playing the better game with churches. The perfect one is out there. I’m going to find it. The one where the pastor preaches a strong, theologically rich sermon with hilarious stories, poignant illustrations, priceless application and all in 30 minutes or less, like an episode of that new Netflix show, F.R.I.E.N.D.S.

In my mind, there was always a better preacher. A better worship experience. A better atmosphere. There had to be. This could not be the pinnacle of church.

And I carried that same mentality and quest for better into my graduate education and professional career.

So by 2013, after 7 years of marriage, we’d moved 11 times (a couple of which were in the same city to a different living situation, but my wife still counts those as moves). Granted, at least I didn’t say I was feeling “called” to Nowheresville. We set up camp in Savannah, Los Angeles, St. Louis–all great cities.

My graduate transcript was a registrar’s worst nightmare. It probably looked more like a word search than a transcript.

After all my searching and gypsy-like moving, where did we end up? Daggum Bluff City, TN. You have to say daggum in a sentence with Bluff City.

That’s a very generous use of the word City, by the way.

But there I was. There we were.

I went from megachurch to megachurch in search of better and ended up being most satisfied pastorally and professionally working in this little, out of the way church and at a Christian school.

At Bunker Hill Christian, there was nobody waiting to be wowed. They wanted to be loved. I didn’t hit a home run with that one, but I grew. Oh so slowly. But they were kind, patient, and gracious.

That season was refining in the sense that it exposed the prideful dross that covered every inch of me. That pride kept me from living a Hebrews 11 life. It would keep from dying a Hebrews 11 death.

Even when I thought I was seeking first God’s kingdom, I was very much at home here. I was an earthly citizen through and through, ALL about the tangible, measurable, and quantifiable.

From childhood to adulthood, the next achievement, next girl, next church, next city, the next better was supposed to make me feel like I’d arrived.

My grand realization? Fundamentally, these were all things I could manipulate. All I had to do was say, Well, God’s calling me to California. Calling me to St. Louis. Calling me to break up with you (best.line.ever).

It doesn’t take faith to manipulate. It takes faith to live and move toward that which you do not control.

Hebrews 11 again

10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

There’s only one truly better city, better scenario, better whatever. The city of God.

There is a future that will only be fashioned by faithfulness in the moment. The Architect has the plans drawn up. But He is also the Builder. So what’s our part?

It may sound like this conclusion to Hebrews 11

32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead, raised to life again. Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. 39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

What better epithet could you ask for than verse 38?

    The world was not worthy of them

Only a person who has lived for a better world will have that said of them.

But like the folks in the text, I can’t sit idly by and dream of the better place.

So, a word to the dreamer like me who can’t get no satisfaction.

Pastor Darrin in Pooler, GA said something one Sunday while we were visiting. I can’t shake it. Keep your eyes fixed on heaven, but get your head out of the clouds, he said. Mind your business, I thought.

No, it really did hit me. Translation for my life? Stop being a critic without bringing a contribution. I’d made a living doing that. The pay is terrible.

I’m asking God to do something with my imagination other than have it be an idol factory that spawns discontentment and petty thoughts. I want to bloom where I’m planted as those flowery journals at Target quip.

But part of our spiritual journeys is smashing face first into the transcendent reality that the lasting satisfaction and fulfillment we seek won’t be found this side of forever. No thing. No one. It won’t happen.

That realization should be even greater fodder for the fire of exhausting all resources in this life on the journey towards what matters most. And it’s probably not the latest facebook fight or Twitter mud slinging contest.

I have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, and this is what or who God has put in front of me right now, and I’m going to catalyze those resources to make the most and best of my actual life right now—and by faith it will produce a better life and death.

Eyes on heaven. Heads out of the clouds.

I’m going to cultivate the very ground in which I’m presently planted to see the fruit that God wants to grow in me and through me, for my good, the good of those around me, and for His glory.

Selah.

Seeking a Better Better in a World of Imposters

So you’ve been bamboozled by the idea of better your entire life, as I mentioned in the last post. Nobody said that’s what was happening, but it happened. And it carries on.

Right now, some of you reading this are thinking about the better job or car or shoes or purse or blog (shame on you for that last one). But it’s in us. We want better. We crave better. We have anxiety over better and imagine ourselves living in, driving, or sleeping with better.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that better is so alluring. The first advertising campaign on earth had to do with better.

It took all of three chapters in Genesis for Eve to be convinced that she could be

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Just one bite?

better and life could be better if she’d just eat of the fruit from a specific tree.

Both she and Adam took the bait of better, hook, line, and sinker. And then everyone blamed someone, but that’s a different topic.

Better is that low hanging fruit, right there in front of your face non-stop. It seems so reachable, so pleasing to the eye, and it must be wonderful to experience. 

  • With ladies, I think about social media and the gnawing sense that her life is better. It’s constant.
  • For the gents living in a hypersexualized culture, it’s evident that the Internet thinks you can get better, and for cheap. Why bother with real people when virtual people will fulfill your fantasies?

Better is everywhere. It wears many masks.

It may be worth noting here that my hope is NOT that you would abandon better. I want you to believe in better. There is a reason that longing is in you. It just may be a wildly different better altogether. It’s a better that, in an election year, will make people frustrated and simultaneously prevent you from slinging mud on the facebook…because you don’t think better will be won at the polls, at not the better folks are slandering, lying, and cussing to grasp.

I found myself some time back re-reading through the letter of Hebrews in the New Testament, which really reads best if you do it all at one time. It’s more like a sermon.

Hebrews chapter 11, in particular, is where this is all coming from.

This chapter is sometimes called the hall of faith because it is replete with the names and stories of some of the who’s who of the OT

Enoch. Noah. Moses. Abraham. Sarah.

The refrain of the chapter is by faith. By faith Noah–by faith Abraham–by faith Israel…

In order to not be confused about what faith is, God is kind enough to tell us exactly what faith is at the beginning of chapter 11

Hebrews 11.1 Now faith is the reality (confidence) of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. (CSB) 

> The glaring oddity about faith and your walk with Christ is that it’s wrapped up in things not seen.

It’s not that the empirical, visible, or tangible doesn’t matter. But rather, that the transcendent, intangible, and invisible matter more, at least in terms of what governs the way you live.

As you might expect, this is a pervasive theme throughout the Bible. That we live amidst the visible and invisible.

It’s this tension that makes so many college students and academics uncomfortable.

It’s what drives attempts by Bible professors who’ve spent nearly a decade in doctoral programs to explain away the supernatural.

And yet much of the focus in Hebrews 11 is on these men and women who were faithful even when they didn’t see what was promised to them by God in this life. Those who were captivated by the invisible, by faith.

  • Abraham didn’t see descendants as numerous as the stars.
  • Moses didn’t see the Promised Land in all its glory.

In the next post, I will point you to a summary of several of these lives and their having died without seeing the better they so longed to experience. Faithful men and women who, thousands of years before we ever cared about a thing, listened and obeyed God, not perfectly, but to the degree that it was clear their better was vastly different than the better we’ve become accustomed to chasing.

Here’s to a better better.

Maybe you aren’t disgusted enough just yet

road-mountains-street-countrysideSojourner. Exile. Pilgrim. Alien. Foreigner. Immigrant.

These are words that most uniquely describe God followers throughout Scripture and history. You might say such designations find their ultimate expression in Jesus’ words from John 17.16 “They [my disciples] are not of this world, as I am not of this world.”

But most Christians–in America, at least–are indistinguishable from the world.

Why?

Jesus is so clear. The prophets are clear. The apostles Paul and Peter and John are clear. James, the brother of Jesus is clear–friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God.

So why the willingness to get in bed with the world, to lay there, strewn about in an adulterous sprawl?

Maybe we aren’t disgusted enough. That’s Eugene Peterson’s answer in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. More accurately,

A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way.”

There’s Eugene. Whispering wonder into world-weary souls that have been consumed by consuming everything and having nothing to show for it.

Until you’re really disgusted with the pattern of wanting, getting, and regretting, nothing will change. Until the tastes of momentary indulgence and fleeting happiness are no longer appetizing, nothing will change. Let alone choosing the way of Christ. The Way that says the more of yourself you give away, the more you find.

How much more will you have to get, consume, envy, or lease before you are disgusted enough to change? And when that disgust reaches a tipping point, to what or whom will you turn as an alternative?

This turn, biblically speaking, is called repentance.

 

Weary Mama, Jesus has been there

jesus-feeds-5000

Moms, the struggle is real. I’m not a mom, but I am married to one. We have four kids, the oldest of which is five, three of which are girls, which means there’s more drama in my house than on all of daytime television.

And when I find myself taking care of all of them solo, I wonder how my wife does it the other six days of the week. But what’s that have to do with Jesus, you ask?

Jesus performed two separate feedings of thousands of people with minimal resources.

In Mark 6, there are 5000 men and who knows how many women and children. The disciples have just returned from their maiden missionary voyage to report all they’ve done in Jesus’ name. But Jesus says, “Shhhhh….you need to rest.”

Out on the boat they go for some rest and relaxation. After all, you can only pour so much of your cup out before the thing is empty. Time to refill.

BUUUUUUUUUUT here come all those needy people. It’s like no matter where Jesus and the boys go, the crowds find them.

Jesus has compassion. “They’re like a sheep without a shepherd,” lost, wandering aimlessly without a clue of how life is supposed to look. After instructing them even more, Jesus feeds them. Actually, he makes the disciples feed them after miraculously multiplying the fishes and loaves.

So I’m reading this in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, and I think, hold on one daggum minute. I’ve seen this happen. In fact, I see it almost everyday.

Lindsey has 2 or 3 kids with her depending on the weekday. Inevitably I get a call or text about 2pm. That’s supposed to be nap time for the kids, which would mean mommy time, which would mean rest or something productive for her own sake.

But that 2pm text usually reads something like, “Addie sabotaged nap time today” or “Caroline is still awake and asking where you are” or “Why do my kids hate me?”

I try to reassure her it’s only a season…that’s going to last another 5 YEARS!

And before you do the whole, “Cherish it because it goes by so fast and you’ll miss it” thing, I hear you. But I’d be better off slapping a lion in the face and trying to outrun it than telling that to my bride.

There will be times, dear mommies–maybe every single day of the week–when you’re at the end of your proverbial rope.

  • Physically exhausted.
  • Mentally shot…like you just found the milk in the pantry that you thought you put in the fridge mentally shot.
  • Emotionally worn.
  • Spiritually sapped.

Because you pour yourself out and out and o..u…..t.

And still, here come those needy people. They’re hungry, tired, scared. They have a belly ache or need a drink of water for the fourth time in 14 minutes. They have no idea what life is supposed to look like. That is, no idea except what you show them.

You’re poured out for them. You resemble the disciples, called by Jesus to shepherd and feed and love those who can’t seem to fend for themselves.

So you have compassion. You shepherd those little hearts (sometimes with the spanking spoon), but always with love. Even when it doesn’t feel like love, it’s love. You’d roll yourself across burning coals for those little punks.

Jesus was literally broken and poured out that we might be blessed and filled. You are figuratively broken and poured out that they might be blessed and filled. But what a calling that is. What a season.

 

Why Yellow Lights are Good for Your Soul

 

We all do it.

We calculate speed, distance, level of risk, and then make the decision…

With grit of teeth and a flex of the ankle we hit the accelerator and speed on through that yellow light.

Whew, made it. Look at those poor souls stuck at the red light. Of course they will catch you while you’re stuck at the next one, but it doesn’t matter because you made it through this one.

Yellow lights are quite helpful in the scheme of things, though. Could you imagine the lights changing from green to red with no transition? It would be chaos. A yellow light is one’s friend, preventing unnecessary pain, damage, and expense. They create a certain rhythm for driving, an in between if you will. Go. Slow. Stop. Go. Slow. Stop.

Now signaling the turn from illustration to application: I often feel as if I am either GO! or STOP! Fully accelerating or slamming on the brakes.

But God has been so kind as to build in some yellow lights, opportunities to slow down before stopping completely and having to accelerate once again. Sometimes I can even time it to where I don’t have to stop all the way but can keep a little momentum moving forward if I spy the yellow light far enough in the distance–you know what I’m talking about, especially if you drive a stick.

Summertime offers a litany of slow downs.

Vacation, for instance, is a red light for some. But I see it as a yellow light, a chance to take my foot off the pedal and pay attention to what God may be doing around me or what He might be asking of me. Sometimes what I notice brings me to full stop, and all I’m left with is Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God. Yes, Lord.

The scenery of summer also has a yellow light quality to it. Lying by the ocean, boating on the river, floating on the lake, fishing in all the above. Water is a often a visual representation of chaos in the Bible. But summer offers a chance to tame the beast and enjoy its pleasures. It’s a chance to slow down and just be.

My yellow light of choice, however, is this: BeStillMountains are a slow down for my soul.

I live around mountains, but I don’t have a view of the mountains like this one (picture from my parent’s back porch this morning). I’m reminded of my smallness and God’s grandeur. I remember the length of my days as compared to the eternality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Quite simply, I slow down.

The next time the light turns yellow and you start measuring and gauging whether you can make it, I encourage you to take your foot off the gas and appreciate the slow downs life affords.