The Mouse and the Scorpion

The Mouse and the Scorpion

I wrote this nearly two years ago, but it didn’t seem like the right time to put it out there, until now.  While we may not be able to explain every bad thing, we can choose to live into God’s purposes, no matter what circumstances we are facing.

Part of the experience here in Honduras is coming across insects and other creatures that are new to me.  Either that, or they have the extra-large version here, where I may have only seen the small ones before.  Scorpions and tarantulas are new to me, and I’m not accustomed to grasshoppers the size of my hand and toads the size of a softball.  We foreigners react pretty strongly to these things while the Hondurans just look at us and shrug.

About a month ago, in the middle of the night, I was awoken by a distinct “scurrying” feeling.  An incredibly fast scurrying moving up my back toward my head… intense enough to jolt me wide awake at 1AM.  I instinctively jumped up to throw whatever it was off my back.  I stumbled over to the light switch to begin my investigation.  I looked around and didn’t really see anything.  I felt around on my back and the back of my head and found a big beetle in my hair.  I thought, “Huh, it seemed bigger than that.”  I got rid of the bug and walked to the bathroom… where I found the real culprit.  There, crouched in the corner, was a big fat mouse staring back at me.  It started running around, and there was something sort of hanging off the back of it, which I identified later as an incapacitated baby mouse… gross.  What followed was a half-hour of trying to corral, capture, or kill these things without making a complete mess.  In the process, I walked out to the living room to try to look for any weaponry I could find.  There I found a scorpion walking slowly across the floor.  So I quickly killed it and went back to the matter at hand.  I ended up getting a couple upside-down baskets over each mouse, and I shuffled them outside and sent them on their way.  It was a little hard to get right back to sleep after that.

I told my story to several people at school the next day, where the gringos reacted in horror and the Hondurans presented me with stares of indifference.

It’s just hard to get pity from someone who grew up without running water when you tell them you had to take a cold shower this morning because the power to your electric water heater was out.

But the scorpion part does kind of get to everyone.  No matter your circumstances growing up, a scorpion sting still hurts… a lot.  And some of them can even kill people.  Mice don’t kill.  Tarantulas don’t even kill.  But scorpions can.  It’s not common, and the kinds of scorpions around here don’t kill people, but there are varieties in the world that can be deadly.

So it got me to thinking… maybe the mouse wasn’t such a big deal.  Maybe it was a good thing that it woke me up so that I could kill that scorpion before it stung my wife or one of my kids or me.  Maybe God uses little problems in our lives to make us aware of bigger issues that are looming.  Maybe what I perceived to be a problem at the time was actually a good thing in the long run.

And this can happen in a couple ways.

Sometimes God is using our troubles to bring our attention to something more dangerous.  And other times, God is using them to get us ready for something bigger and more challenging.  Sometimes the little mouse brings our attention to the scorpion.  Sometimes the little mouse gets us ready for a bigger mouse.  Sometimes it’s prevention.  Sometimes, it’s preparation.

So yeah, sometimes, the difficulties in our lives prove to be beneficial in the long run.

And sometimes they don’t.

What do we do with that?

Sometimes, the people of entire nations suffer for generations under oppressive leadership.  Sometimes, we give everything we have to give, and we get nothing in return.  Sometimes, our children die.  Do we really believe that the God of infinite love is behind these things?  Can that God even exist in a universe where these things do?

Not only is he in it with us, but he’s the only way through it.  Sometimes, things like these happen because of the curse of sin in the universe, which exists as a result of our own terrible choices.  Choice, which itself exists as a necessary expression of true love from the Father, has been the only real tool at human disposal, and we’ve used it to destroy God’s perfect universe to the best of our abilities.

But we could never mess anything up so bad that he couldn’t fix it.

So how do we fix it?  Well, first of all, we don’t.  He does.  We have to let him fix it.

Well then, how can we explain that to others who maybe don’t totally know the God we do in a way that makes sense?  Well, again, we can’t.  We can try, but even that is wishful thinking.

If we want, we could summarize and say that:

1) Sometimes God uses the hard things in life to prevent or bring attention to bigger, harder things;

2) Sometimes God uses the hard things in life to prepare us for later, harder things;

3) and sometimes, bad things just happen because of the curse of sin in this world.

Ok, great, are you really gonna sleep any better tonight?  Probably not.

The very exercise of trying to explain these things away undermines the very reason for our existence… ultimate and complete reliance on and trust in God… a meaningful relationship with the Father through the Spirit allowed by the actions of the Son.

We have to choose to follow him.  We have to choose to act in a way consistent with his instructions.  We have to choose to make our actions demonstrate the trust we place in him.

Paul went through all kinds of problems (criticism, hunger, imprisonment, etc) in his lifetime and still ended up being arguably the most influential spreader of the gospel of all time (shy of Jesus himself).  God used all the problems in Paul’s life to speak to much bigger problems of humanity for generations to come.  We’re living in that time, and that influence will doubtless continue into the future.

Old Testament Saul lost his donkeys.  He went to go look for them and ended up running into Samuel, who appointed him to be king over all of Israel.  God used his little donkey problem to prepare the way for him to rule over his people and change the course of history.

Job dealt with a problem or two, and never really got a great explanation.  Sure, things worked out for him ok in the end, but that doesn’t mean he still didn’t bear the immensity of the loss of everything he had and everyone in his family all the days of his life.

Peter and John didn’t have any money, but they acted in the knowledge of what they did have… the power of Jesus Christ through them.  With their faith and hope and words and actions with Christ inside them, they were able to help a lame man to walk again, sharing the glory and hope of Christ with many.

Some things will only be fully explained in heaven, but that’s no excuse to be apathetic or dismissive now.  Some things will only be redeemed in the eternal presence of the one who redeems all things.  Until then, we must speak and act in manner consistent with the hope that we have…  the certain hope that comes from the eternal promises given to us by the only one who is capable of keeping all his promises.

Photo Credit: ID 122858810 © Landshark1 | Dreamstime.com

Justificado

Justificado

I had the chance a couple weeks ago to go back to Honduras, this time for a massive and amazing conference with AJS.  I hadn’t really spent a lot of time in Tegucigalpa before, and I got to see a lot of program work in person for the first time.  Man, was it cool.  I got to visit community centers that are keeping kids out of gangs, go inside the actual national police headquarters, and go hiking in a national park just for fun.  I was reminded of both the struggles and the beauty of this country for which I have an overdeveloped affection, and I was reminded of the hope that only comes from God, and thankful for those working for the good of this country as they inspire others around the world.

I also had the chance to go visit friends, students, and neighbors in Gracias.  There were small changes… certain buildings were a little more complete, some new faces were teaching at the school, and I stayed in a hotel while someone else lived in “my” house.  But a lot was still the same… the smell of the air, the taste of the food, the personalities of the students, the jokes with old friends, and the general over-appreciation of my family with respect to myself… most people got about halfway through saying hello to me before asking where Steph and the kids were.  So yeah, it was nice to see them, too.

But really, it was odd to be there without them.  In a way, it still felt much like home, but riding a bus without having to tell anyone to quit wiggling around is a lot less interesting.  Getting only myself ready in the morning is still a challenge, just not quite as challenging as the routine I’m used to.  Seeing people again was absolutely spectacular, but visiting a place just isn’t the same as living there, and it left me feeling divided, conflicted.

Even so, God has given me many assurances that I’m right where he wants me, but I continue to think that I can make better plans than he can.  God just continues to act as if he were all-knowing, which would be off-putting, except that he is.

One of the things I got to do while there was give the chapel message at school, which was about examining faith and mercy in our relationships with God and each other.  It focused on the belief and action components of both faith and mercy, and it was likely to change the lives of all who listened in a matter of minutes.  Except that I think the message was for me.  Later that night, I got to go to our weekly Bible study (which I hadn’t been to in months, but felt like I had never left), and we looked at Galatians 3 and Paul’s discussion of justification through faith versus justification through obeying the law… essentially the same belief versus actions discussion I had given in chapel that morning.  When God does that type of thing to me, I both feel sheepish for not realizing it earlier, and encouraged that he has something specific to show me.  My conclusion was that I needed to rest more in my identity as his son, and worry less about measuring the tasks I was accomplishing for his kingdom.  No matter what I’ve learned before, I still live trying to justify myself through the works I accomplish, even relying on the approval of others and the notion that St. Peter will someday examine my Christian report card.

After getting back to the states (which is a phrase I can throw around now that I’m a big time international traveler)… so after getting back to the states, my boss told us all to take some extra time to rest after our big conference (which was intensely busy and incredibly awesome).  This mandate to rest doesn’t jive with my obsession with tasks, but it does however align yet again with what God seems to be saying to me.  So I try to listen more closely.  In choosing to rest, I actually read my Bible (with the proper note added to my St. Peter report card), and the first thing I read was Romans 3.  You know what Romans 3 talks about?  You might know Romans 3:23: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” which is at best taken mildly out of context on its own.  In the NIV, it’s actually the middle of a sentence.  Just to give you a sense, at least Romans 3:24 should be included with verse 23, adding, “…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  It’s all part of a much longer passage discussing righteousness (or justification) through faith and faith alone.  Interestingly, in Spanish, righteousness and justice are the same word… justicia.  (Remember, I’m a world traveler that knows these kinds of things.)  We are justified, made righteous, made just, justificado by faith alone… not by faith in something powerless, but by faith in the only all-powerful thing… by faith in the one who has already extended grace and mercy and is just waiting for us to accept it.  Our good Christian accomplishments that may end up on our report card are not worth keeping track of because in reality they simply flow out of the joy that comes from choosing to accept this grace that is sufficient.

When I act on my own, I may not completely fail, but I lack peace and joy.  When I allow God’s love and grace to fill me up and flow out with his guidance as mercy toward others… then, only then, do I sense God’s peace and joy in the work he has for me.  So accomplishing God’s work requires rest.  Accomplishing God’s work requires not keeping track and comparing.  Accomplishing God’s work requires time and patience.  And accomplishing God’s work requires not thinking of it as accomplishing work at all, but rather as enjoying the unions with which he blesses us in this life… a union both to himself and to others in his creation… bonds that we couldn’t possibly know enough about to perfect on our own… bonds that only he can weave together in his eternal and all-knowing way… something that we can only participate in when we allow the waves to wash over us and the current to guide us, rather than swimming our hardest in the direction we think we should go.

It’s so hard to let go of control, but it’s so freeing.  We are not justified or made righteous through our actions, but rather just and right action will flow out of a relationship of surrender characterized by faith.  I’m so glad I don’t have to earn his grace.  And I’m so glad I get to be a part of his work.  I pray that he would help me not to question him so much along the way, and I’m grateful that he’s willing to gently and repeatedly remind me that I don’t need to.

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.