It’s Finished?

It’s Finished?

The best answers to problems seem to be objective ones… but those are also the hardest answers to find when you are living through the problems.  As hard as it has been to move back from Honduras, and as much as I miss it there, being removed from an environment allows you to think more objectively about it, just as being exposed to a new environment broadens your perspective of the world you live in.

Sam is an early riser, and he doesn’t get it from me.  In the morning, he’ll usually be up and dressed with the TV on by the time I wake up.  One of the things that I’ve found odd in our new rhythm here is that I can’t let him watch the news.  I certainly don’t want to prevent him from experiencing objective reality, but more often than not, the news isn’t that.  It’s typically a tiny, shocking or salacious slice of world events that gets a misrepresentative amount of coverage, because it grabs our attention, and attention means ratings.  I very much appreciate the need for and the service of good journalism, so this is not what I mean by “the news.”  Unfortunately, news coverage does not normally paint an accurate and wholistic picture of our reality.  And even the best journalism will struggle to do that.

So it made me wonder about Sam’s perception of reality, because theoretically, he hasn’t been spoiled by the news quite yet.  One day I asked him, “Which country do you think is more dangerous, Honduras or the U.S.?”  I think most U.S.-based adults would somewhat fairly answer Honduras, and that answer would be because of what they have seen or heard or read in the news about crime rates, etc.  But Sam had lived in both places with only his life experience to draw on.  So he said… “Honduras.”  But his answer was a little unsure.  When I asked him why he thought that, he said, “Because of the way they drive there.”  The young man has a point.

So where do we get the news that we choose to allow to rule our lives?  From the media, whether right, left, or center?  Or from the eternal good news of the gospel?  Which news do we let consume our thinking and guide our actions?

In Philippians 4:8, Paul writes, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”  Why?  In the next verse, Paul says that this leads us to peace.

If we don’t let our kids watch the news, and we also don’t let them use judgmental and divisive words like idiot, bigot, or snowflake… is that stuff really all that good for us as adults?  This way of experiencing the world not only lacks benefit, but it is also destructive… to our thoughts, actions, relationships, mental health, and ultimately… it robs us of our peace.

So can we just deny the bad things going on around us?  Certainly not.

I have been struggling lately to understand what Christ meant when he said, “It is finished.”   I look around and see the needs of the Honduran people, and indeed the needs of so many in this country, and I can tell you objectively…. it is NOT finished.  Or possibly, I don’t really understand what “it” is.  But I don’t think Christ is a liar, and I don’t think he’s crazy, so he must be right.  In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explores this idea when he talks about people who say that Christ was just a good teacher.  Well, he said he was the Son of God… he said he was God.  So there are only a few options… either he is a liar, he is nuts, or he is the Lord of heaven and earth.  I’ve chosen to believe he is Lord, so how can I believe him when he says, “It is finished”?

Well, the distinction here is the finite versus the eternal.  Eternity is not just “a very long time” – it is a state of existence beyond the limitations of time.  This means it is likely more dynamic than static, and likely more so than we can currently comprehend.  Just as I gain objectivity about life in Honduras as I am more removed from actually living there, I will only gain true objectivity on this question after I am removed from life in the finite… removed from life on earth.  Until then, we must hold these apparently opposing views at the same time, but there is an important distinction between them that we can use to guide our beliefs and actions.

It is FINISHED in the sense that Christ lived, died, and was resurrected to fulfill all the prophecies in the scriptures, and ultimately to make grace available to all who will accept it.  And his redemption of the world is also ONGOING in that there is work to be done and we get to be a part of it.

The good news of the gospel is that Christ already completed the ultimate work.  The joy of life is that we get to participate in God’s ongoing redemption of his creation.

Being able to hold apparently opposing viewpoints simultaneously isn’t just a characteristic of Christianity, it’s a requirement.  We preach hope to a hopeless world.  We love those that don’t believe they deserve to be loved.  We wage peace.  Our God fills us with joy in the midst of sorrow.

One of my biggest failures recently (and historically, but especially recently) is that I think I have to solve the world’s problems by myself… with my own ideas and my own work.  Thankfully, the world is not dependent on only these things, or we’d certainly be in an even worse position than we currently are.  We can’t rely on our own solutions and actions alone to bring about God’s justice.  We must first accept the grace given us and only then can we extend his goodness to others.  We can’t help the world with our own plans… but we can’t fail when we allow God to accomplish his work through us.

So is it finished or is it ongoing?  The answer is yes.  God is not constrained by the time that creates an artificial distinction between these two thoughts.  It is finished in the sense that God’s grace has been offered to all.  It is ongoing in that there is still work to be done to redeem the broken parts of our current existence.  But it is only from both of these thoughts existing simultaneously that we can draw the courage to deal with the brokenness all around us.  We take heart in the certain hope that is extended through God’s grace… a hope that dares to stare into the face of poverty, war, and suffering of all kinds, and then guarantees the eternal redemption of it all.  How can this be??  I ask how it could be anything else.  Christ’s hope is no respecter of circumstances.  It is in all, and forever.

So is it that simple then?  We just tell people not to worry about their suffering because it will all be better in the end?  Never mind that you never met your birth parents; look how you turned out.  Don’t worry that your friend killed himself; God will wipe away every tear in heaven.  Move on from the death of your child that you don’t get to be with anymore; you’ll see them in heaven.  These are hollow human responses, lacking the supreme empathy of God’s love.  While well-intentioned and perhaps not entirely untrue, they lack the fullness of God’s truth.  This isn’t a truth to be imposed on someone else’s situation.  This is a truth to accept through the experience of finding your true identity as a child of God.

In Romans 8:18, Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  Paul suffered through a great deal, to put it mildly.  But still, he’s not denying the existence of human suffering.  He’s just looking to the light of God’s glory… a light we don’t fully understand right now, but one that can give us great peace when we accept the grace of God through faith.  It is not a notion for us to impose upon others in their suffering, but it is for us as individuals to choose to accept in order to attain incredible peace in the face of any adversity.  Read the rest of Romans 8 to see a bit of Paul’s incredibly encouraging faith when faced with his own suffering and a suffering world.  The world as we know it today isn’t historically unique in its apparent hopelessness.  The devil has been using this deception to varying degrees of success since the beginning of recorded history.

The evil in this world often seems overwhelmingly powerful, and it can overwhelm us if we let it by denying God the opportunity to help us.  But this evil has no place even being on the same scale as the power of the one in whom I choose to put my trust.

On Identity

On Identity

We’ve been back in the US for about two months now.  In the selling, packing, traveling, and unpacking, it’s clear that God is still helping us along.  So many things worked out so perfectly the last few days in Honduras.  I kind of blacked out with a house full of stuff and kids about three days before we had to fly, and then when I woke up, I was in Chicago with four suitcases, two kids, and a wife.  It was nuts.

And even in the unpacking, God was there.  I couldn’t find the screws to Sam’s bunkbeds anywhere, and I was anxious about it, because they’d be a real hassle to replace.  As we unpacked and assembled other furniture, Stephanie found them at the exact moment I was finishing putting together the last other item to be assembled.  I think there is a lesson in there that I’ll let speak for itself.

Also while unpacking, I thought I had lost a small collection of notes I had gotten over the last two years… notes of encouragement or thanks or things like that.  I was very relieved to eventually find it, and when I did, I took a minute to go through it, and I noticed a pattern.  “It was great to get to know you and your family….”  “I really enjoyed spending time with your family…”  “You have such a nice family…”  Ok, I get it… I think they’re wonderful, too.

Now, our kids just started at a bilingual school and Stephanie is back at work and looking to start her own schooling at MSU very soon.  We’re slipping back into real life in Michigan one step at a time.  Externally, much is similar to the way things were a few years ago.  Same house, same town, old neighbors, old friends.  And it’s great.  But this similarity seems eerie to me because of the incredible change that I know has taken place internally.  So while I can tell stories or point to souvenirs, there’s no short way to communicate this change to others, and perhaps no great long way either.

In Honduras, I knew who I was.  I was Mr. Joyce, science teacher.  I knew exactly what I needed to do each day to be successful, although that definitely wasn’t the case at first and I need to remind myself that that went very poorly until I began accepting God’s help on a daily, even momentary, basis.  In this way he forms our identities through our developing relationship with him.  But what is the source of my identity now?  Everything is so much like it was two years ago, but why is identity so much harder to find now?

Much of my time this summer was spent looking for a job.  You know that feeling when you’re standing on stage or someone is taking your picture and you don’t know what to do with your hands?  That was my life for about a month.  That constant feeling of, “This?  No.  This?  Yes… oh no?  No.  Ok, this?  No.”  But perhaps if I found a job, I could find identity there?  Certainly God has a plan, yes?  In this instance, I think he did indeed have a plan, but I sure would have liked him to let me know the plan earlier than he did.  But that’s not the way he works.  Eventually, and at just the right time, a position opened up at AJS (Association For A More Just Society), where I started working a few weeks ago.  They are primarily a Honduran organization with a large work force in Tegucigalpa.  A quick description will be lacking, but they conduct research and develop solutions to problems like corruption and violence in Honduras, which so disproportionately impact the poor and vulnerable.  Then they work alongside the government, other institutions, communities, and individuals to implement these solutions and track their performance over time.  There is so much more to their story, so I encourage you to check out their website and get involved if you feel led.  They also have a US-based 501(c)(3) with an office in Grand Rapids, where I work, and I am personally just thrilled to be involved with people who are passionate about showing God’s love to the Honduran people… the same people for whom God put inside me an indescribable love just a couple years ago.

So is that my identity?  Does that define who I am?  While I think it does give me a tremendous sense of purpose and I do find contentedness there, I can only do so because I get my identity from Christ first.

That period of time between jobs allowed me to struggle with identity without the specters of purpose and contentedness to blur my vision.  Am I valuable to God without a job?  Can I find contentedness without accomplishing something humanly measurable each day?  The answer to both questions, of course, is yes.  But the path to accepting those answers is a much more difficult personal journey that is only possible when we accept the great love the Father has for us… a love not due to what we have done, but because of who we are… because of our true identity as his image bearers.

So while we do need a way to pay for homes and food and raising kids, if we conflate a job with our identities as humans, created in the image of God, then we’ve missed the point.  Our jobs can offer purpose only after we’ve found our identity in Christ.  If we think contentedness comes from being happy and static all the time, we’ll never find joy and we’ll miss what God is doing in the dynamism that is real life.  Our lives can only be filled with contentedness after we accept Christ as the unique source of our identity.  The 9-5 should be filled with purpose and meaning, but only because we get a tremendously overwhelming sense of our identity and value from the love Christ has bestowed upon us as his creation.  Being made in him gives us an identity and a value and a purpose and a meaning and leads to a contentedness that nothing else in this world could even come close to offering us.

By now, it’s clear that I’m someone who struggles with mixing up my identity with my job… but there are many other false sources of identity we trust… our cars, our homes, our clothes, our phones, our material possessions, the expensive food and entertainment we can afford, how athletic we are, how good-looking we are, how smart we are, how funny we are, how much other people like us, etc.  The list goes on and on, and it’s all superficial and fleeting.  All those things can change dramatically in just a little bit of time.  Our focus as humans is so narrow, and especially so with respect to time.  We get so focused on our little definition of ourselves in our little day that we forget the fact that we can be eternally rooted in the one who sees all time at a glance.  He is the one who allows seasons of all kinds in our life that we may come to trust him and rely on only him.  Life itself doesn’t last forever, but our true identity – one who is loved by God – does.  And we can use that true identity to understand everything around us… good or bad, easy or hard, joyful or upsetting, long-lasting or fleeting.

Time will continue to flow, and we will all continue to change to some extent, but our true identity need not.  You are not who you were, you are not who you will be, you are who you are.  You only have the choice to accept your identity now, at this moment, and true identity can only come from relationship with Christ.  Who you were and who you will be will change.  Who you are, as one who is loved by God, will always remain the same.  And when we accept ourselves at each moment as one who is loved by God, everything else around us has a way of aligning itself with that truth.

 

 

 

 

The Right Kind of People

The Right Kind of People

We’re back in the US, and two years went by in a snap.  It’s a little like waking up from a dream… a really vivid, meaningful, and beautiful one.

With a few weeks left to go in Honduras, Stephanie flew back early to be with her Grandma who is very sick.  And so the great experiment began.  One day, Sam said, “I was worried about it just being us here.”  Presumably, by “us,” Sam meant the three of us… Evie, Sam, and myself.  To be honest, I was very worried, too, likely more so than Sam… However, luckily for both of us, “us” in Honduras means something different.  Now it’s unfair to make generalizations about the people in any country, but there are clear differences in the societal norms between these two places I have lived, so I am speaking generally, not to accuse or celebrate one geographically distinct group of people, but rather to point out differences that we all can possibly learn from if we choose to do so.  Students have babysat my children.  They have helped them find me after school and put Evie’s hair in a ponytail.  They have said hello to them.  They have smiled at them.  The genuineness of community here is not taught through a lecture at school… it is passed on through the example of your grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, mother, father, cousin, brother, sister, all of which are willing to put aside their personal concerns at a moment’s notice in order to help you with whatever it is you need, especially if that something is making you feel bad or sad or mad.  I had challenges in Honduras every day.  I usually had more help than I knew what to do with.  My cultural experience tells me to tell other people to leave me alone, and I’ll handle it, even if it’s awful.  Cultural experience in Honduras doesn’t let the individual off the hook so easily, which can be extremely humbling, especially if you’re as self-proclaimedly self-sufficient as people like me.

I have actually intentionally avoided people so that I could avoid accepting their help.  How messed up is that?  It’s just that if you tell people a minor problem you are having, they will make it their life’s mission to solve it for you.  For instance, if I can’t find butter on my own at the store, I’m not going to buy butter.  I’ll go home and make something that doesn’t require butter, or more likely, I’ll go buy food at a restaurant.  But if someone sees me looking for butter, and asks what I’m looking for, then I’m screwed.  If that store doesn’t have the kind of butter that I’m looking for, it’s entirely possible that this person is going to walk to other stores with me until we find that butter.  This makes me extremely uncomfortable… both because I’m messed up, and because it undermines the independence that I’ve been trained to value so highly, even above the relationship that another human being is offering to me, and that’s the part that’s really messed up.

But by accepting some help, we made it through the end of the school year and the packing and the traveling.  Through it all, I was reminded that the people who surrounded me in Honduras are really the right kind of people.

At the end of my last class with the seniors, I asked them if I could pray for them.  Bad idea… I couldn’t.  I choked out a few words and wrapped it up.  They applauded.  I do believe in high school, I would have just felt awkward and then made fun of the teacher later, but they met my vulnerability with applause.  The right kind of people applaud vulnerability.

Then on the last day of school, the 9th graders threw me a surprise party.  Now I kind of saw it coming based on some stuff they had been saying before, but when they came to me and told me that they had broken some stuff in my room and I needed to come immediately, I got mad… really mad.  And I scolded them the whole way to the classroom, where I switched to a different kind of mad… being upset with myself for getting duped.  Eventually, I mellowed out and it was awesome.  The right kind of people take your bad and give you good.

Then on the day we were scheduled to fly back, I didn’t feel so good.  I’ve heard about people dealing with illness while traveling before, and it always sounded like the worst thing in the world.  I can confirm now… it is.  We got to the airport and I figured some coffee would set me straight.  And it did… after it made me puke in the airport bathroom garbage can, because all the stalls were full.  A nice stranger handed me paper towels.  The right kind of people hand puking strangers paper towels.  But it didn’t stop there.  After getting through security, we had a while to wait, because we had gotten to the airport early.  I spent most of the time sleeping or trying to sleep close to or inside another airport bathroom.  It was as awful as it sounds.  But luckily, we were traveling with six other people who were able to take turns watching Sam and Evie while I took turns in and out of consciousness and the airport bathroom.  By the power of the almighty alone, the worst of it wore off by the time we took flight, but the flights weren’t exactly fun.  I’m still shaking the effects of that virus 4 days later.  Trust me, Honduran viruses are strong.  So thank God I had friends there to travel with.  The right kind of people buy your kids drinks and toys when you’re indisposed.

We all have the opportunity to be the right kind of people every day.  It is not dependent on our birthplace or ethnicity or living situation or current country of residence, but rather on our intentional choice to be someone who lives for others instead of living for oneself.  I spent 31 years living for myself.  I’ve spent 3 years trying to live for others.  It is perhaps appropriate or not quite enough to swap those numbers when quantifying the overall amount of joy I have experienced while living through them.

And that joy may seem to come from within, and it sort of does… but specifically, it comes from the place within where God himself implanted it.  And it is only expressed because of the other people God has placed in my life.

But the world around us does not know this joy.  The world around us can choke out this joy.

Today is actually the 10th anniversary of the coup in Honduras, where one government was removed, and another took its place.  So on this day, I’d like to point out two things.

First, Honduras is not known to me by the anniversaries of political unrest.  It is known to me by the beauty of the mountains and the trees and the rivers.  It is known to me by the great coffee served with great frequency.  But primarily, it is known to me by the kindness, empathy, genuineness, and beauty of the people I came to know there, who redefined for me the meaning of the word community.  I share with the hope that it will be known to you in a similar way.

Second, the kingdom of heaven does not deem significant anniversaries marked by the passage of time.  It’s completely arbitrary, really, to say that some particular time is significant because the earth has revolved around the sun exactly ten times since it happened.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a birthday or a wedding anniversary or whatever, but let’s keep in mind that these human observances are minutia in the grand story of God’s ongoing redemption of the world.  Tick marks on the wall lose their power on the day the prisoner is set free.  When it seems the world and all its negative influences and horrible situations have power over us, we need to remember that we serve one who has overcome the world.  The bad things in life aren’t “punishment” from him or things he “allows to happen,” but rather they are an indication of the distance to which we have intentionally stepped away from him and his love and his perfect plan for our lives.

In John 16:33, Jesus tells his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

There aren’t just problems in Honduras.  There are problems in the United States… there are problems in every country in the world.

And there aren’t just problems in other people’s lives.  There are problems in our lives… every one of us.  No matter how debilitating or overwhelming those problems seem, we need to continue to choose to have faith that God is near, whether we can feel him or not.  Sometimes we will… sometimes we won’t.  But luckily, we serve a God whose presence isn’t subject to the current state of our emotions, but rather dictated by an enduring promise from the all-powerful.

In the last half of the last verse in Matthew (28:20), Jesus tells his disciples, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

There is no place and no time and no feeling beyond the reach of our God.  There is no global nor personal crisis he can’t transform and redeem.  He does, however, leave the decision to us to either reject him, or to allow his loving and healing presence into our lives, day by day, moment by moment.  It’s what I keep trying to do, and it’s my prayer for you.

So pray for God’s presence in your life, and please pray for God’s peace in Honduras.

Just Be

Just Be

It’s been over 3 months since I last wrote, and I’d love to blame it on being busy, but that’s not the real reason.  The fact is that I’m having a tremendously difficult time coming to grips with the idea that this is all going to be over.  If I don’t talk about it, then maybe it won’t be true.  I mean, hey, that approach has served me well when dealing with emotion throughout my life, so why not give it a shot?

And we really have been busy.  Stephanie had several more brigades and she’s wrapping one up right now.  We had visits from friends and family.  We had another successful science fair at school.  Sam and Evie are learning and growing so fast, it blows me away.  We even got to travel to Cayos Cochinos, which is a collection of smaller islands off the northern coast of Honduras.  I mean, there’s an island nearby where they film Survivor, if that gives you any idea how awesome it is.  It felt like being on Lost, except that there was no plane crash or smoke monster or polar bears or “others,” and someone made all our meals for us… so not like being on Lost.  But it was a beautiful place.  This whole country is beautiful.  But I don’t feel drawn to Honduras for the landscape or the view.  I feel drawn to the people.  Even for someone emotionally stunted like me, I know my purpose here isn’t to enjoy the sites… it’s to impact the people… and let them impact me.  I’m not ready for that to end.

Now, it’s not all bad when looking at moving back to Michigan.  It’s a pretty awesome place to be for three to five months out of the year.  But truly, there are so many wonderful people there, too, that I can’t wait to live near again.  There’s really a great deal to be excited about… like hopefully no longer finding cockroaches on my toothbrush in the middle of the night.  And Stephanie will be going to Michigan State this fall to continue schooling to become a Nurse Practitioner.  This isn’t just an ending, but also something of a new beginning.

But I have no idea what’s next for me.  I don’t have a job, and without a job, I lack purpose, and without purpose, what’s the point?  That’s a nasty spiral, and I do have many very obvious purposes to serve (especially for the humans that live with me), but to be in this position can feel unsettling to say the least.

Now I know God has a plan, but if he could just tell me what it is, that would be great.  He sure made it clear when we were supposed to move here… I mean, I didn’t hear an audible voice, but when we were visiting Gracias a little over two years ago, I looked at the mountains and he spoke so clearly that it was scary… I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.  He used Psalm 121 to help me look up to the mountains and hear his direction.  And now here I am without a message from the sky, and what, I’m supposed to have faith or something?

In a little less dramatic revelation, I think God pointed me toward Isaiah 40:26 the other day, which says, “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?”  I think he’s saying, “Hey man, you won’t only find me in the mountains… you’ll find me everywhere you go… going before you, standing behind you, and right by your side.  Mountains were a symbol I used to guide you, but don’t just look to them… look to me, the one who does the guiding.”

And who am I to demand the kind of answer I want from God?

In John 14:8, Phillip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Wow.  The balls on this guy.  Looking Jesus in the face and telling him he’s not enough immediately after Jesus had just said that he is the way and the truth and the life and if you know him, then you know the Father.

I often wonder about the real-world delivery of some of the conversations people had with Jesus.  They’re all written so innocuously in small black (or maybe red) letters in our Bibles, but I can’t imagine that this conversation wasn’t highly animated.  I feel like Jesus’ response to Phillip should at least be in all caps.

And yet I do the same thing.  “God, I’ve seen you work miracles in my life and provide for me in unimaginable ways… but maybe just prove yourself to me by telling me what’s next.”

As a human, I feel like I need to get something done, to solve the problem, to achieve something measurable.  In the process, I completely look past where I am at the moment.  The truth is that it’s not over… God has a month and a half planned for me to be in Honduras, and I can’t “be” well if I’m preoccupied by figuring something out for which God already has a plan.  And even after we move to Michigan, nothing is over.  It’s still a continuation of the plan that God already knows, and I’ll still struggle with wanting to know what’s next on my time, rather than waiting for God.  It’s not like God tells you that one thing and you’re happy forever.  We must learn to be content with just “being” with God and enjoying his relationship with us.

That state of being isn’t really ever achieved, but rather maintained and grown… just like a human relationship.  Which makes sense, because the point of life isn’t to GET to God, it is to BE with God.  And being can’t be accomplished.  Being just is.

I often ask Sam and Evie if they know what my favorite part of being in Honduras is.  They’ve heard it enough times to roll their eyes and fight against a small smile and reply, “Being with us.”  How much more intense must God’s love be for you and I… and I assure you, that’s saying something.  Evie will even occasionally give me back the same line of questioning and response, which is truly one of my greatest honors in life.  Just think how much we could honor our Father by echoing back to him that same sentiment.

So I’m gonna try to just be where God has me.  Right now in Honduras, definitely… in the future in Michigan, sure… and also hopefully everywhere every day for the rest of my life… wherever he has me… the places he already knows.  I trust he’ll tell me what’s next when the time is right, right up until it’s time to really be with him… and won’t that be something.