New Collective Experience

New Collective Experience

Sometime in early junior high, when I was just as cool as the next guy (assuming the next guy wasn’t very cool), I bought my first CD’s… Bush’s Sixteen Stone and Gin Blossom’s New Miserable Experience.  Instantly, I became even cooler, but it would be another several years before my coolness peaked with a portable CD player hooked up to a tape adapter in my car, with so many CD’s strapped up to the overhead visor that it always flopped down a little bit.  Unfortunately, this was the type of car that started with a screwdriver (story for another day), had a sunroof that could only be lifted out manually (maybe a moonroof, and another story for another day), always had full water jugs in the back to refill the radiator (couple of stories there for later), and had doors that didn’t lock (story for right now).  So somebody stole my sweet portable CD player, complete with its translucent blue cover and its 55 seconds of anti-skip G-force protection.  And they ripped off my CD’s, the vast majority of which were burned anyway.  (Burned means copied, because my computer also rocked a CD-burner back in the day.)  So that was a rough day.  Down the line, I had a new car and a new CD player, and I installed a couple of 6×9’s in the back, and life was good… until I crashed it into a dump truck (story for another day).

That first day buying music, I may have also bought a Foo Fighters single not realizing it was a single… and I wish I could say not realizing it was the Foo Fighters.  And since there’s not a single discernable cohesive thought on Sixteen Stone, we’ll be taking our literary example today from the Gin Blossoms.  On “29,” this stanza always inspired my 13-year-old self:

“There’s no intentions worthy of mention / If we never try / So hang your hopes on rusted out hinges / Take ‘em for a ride”

And that’s a great sentiment, but it’s incomplete.  I’m not going to tell you that when you play it backwards, you hear the devil, but if you put your complete trust in worldly wisdom, then you are indeed deceived.  Before I sound too much like my mother, let’s frame things for our context today.

Throughout this virus thing, other than the direct suffering and death, I think the thing that has unsettled me the most is the way it seeps into our conversation, and I see it doing so in two ways.

One is that I don’t have to give people background before it comes up.  Normally, when discussing something significant, you have to tell the other person, “Yeah, my sister just had a baby,” or, “My dad’s in the hospital,” or, “My aunt died,” or, “I got fired a week ago.”  Then, they acknowledge what happened, express the appropriate joy or sympathy, and the conversation goes from there.  With respect to the virus, we all skip that part.  We’re having this new collective experience together, essentially globally.  Whether I’m talking to my next-door neighbor or someone in Honduras, the framework is already there.  Honduras had its first two cases the same day Michigan did, so while the experiences in Michigan and Honduras are very different in many ways, there’s a context which is the same.  As you read this, I don’t need to specify COVID-19, because you know exactly what virus I’m talking about.  (Actually, the virus is SARS-CoV-2 and the disease is COVID-19…  and I’m just throwing these details in here for clarification to help the historians put things in context when they pore over my blogs centuries from now.)

The second unsettling thing about the virus in conversation is how dominating it is.  Even in catching up with friends, it’s a massive talking point.  And I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, I’m just noticing that it is.  We do need to talk about it so that we are helping one another to behave wisely, and there are definitely nuances and challenges socially that are healthy to talk about with the people around you.  But the fact remains that it’s a dominating point of conversation.

So we all have a good fundamental understanding of it, and it dominates our thoughts, conversations, and behaviors…. Hmmm…. I do believe there’s something else in this existence that was intended to be treated with such attention and passion…. And it’s not something that fades away when this life does.

You can’t live very long on this earth without experiencing some kind of trauma.  It just so happens now that we are all experiencing a similar type of trauma at the same time.  This doesn’t make it a good thing, but it does allow the opportunity for a different type of conversation, a different type of growth, and fertile ground for the work of redemption.  God may or may not initiate certain events in our lives, but he absolutely intends to redeem them all.

Often (although certainly not always), the end result of a difficult experience in an individual’s life is that when they choose to be optimistic, they come out the other side more knowledgeable, stronger, more prepared.  There are scientifically demonstrable examples of optimism being linked to successful outcomes.  But that worldly example is just a reflection of what God intends for us.

The worldly truth expressed in the Gin Blossom’s lyrics is a great motivator… “You have to actually try it, even if your hope is hanging on something that might soon and eventually will fail, like rusty hinges.”  But if our hope stops there, we miss God’s other-worldly truth that tells us we have certain hope in him.   Hebrews 6:19 (The Passion Translation) says, “We have this certain hope like a strong, unbreakable anchor holding our souls to God himself.  Our anchor of hope is fastened to the mercy seat which sits in the heavenly realm beyond the sacred threshold.”

Don’t just give it a try with your hopes on rusty worldly hinges that are actually one day assured of failing.  Secure your hopes to the unrustable anchor linked by mercy to the very throne of the one who rules the universe today and forever, never changing, never failing.

Our current collective experience is one motivated by fear.  It is not the experience that God intended to consume our existence.  He intends for our thoughts, experiences, conversations, and behaviors to be consumed by love… to be filled with his essence, which is love.

What if we had a new collective experience epitomized by love, not fear.  One that doesn’t seep into our conversations insidiously, but rather illuminates them with eternal light.  What if we didn’t just get through life by reacting to bad situations, but chose to live to the fullest by proactively recognizing the people all around us as image-bearers of God, eternal beings whose truest form is love.

I know it’s possible because I’ve seen this type of collective living before in various places to one extent or another.  Whether going on a mission trip, or working in an explicitly or implicitly Christian environment, when people seek Christ’s mission before their own, he brings people together and blesses them in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t seen it over and over again.  Psalm 133:1 (NIV) says, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”  We aren’t able to experience this to its fullest form on this earth, but as Christ-followers, we are empowered to catch glimpses of it… and even spread it… with an eternal infectious power not even worth comparing to anything temporal.

That experience is out there and available to all, as a result of the ultimate extension of grace and mercy that we actually honor today, Good Friday.  Jesus was willing to go to these unthinkable lengths because he ultimately chose to trust God’s word that his actions would lead to the availability of eternal grace to all.  In the same way, we must choose to trust his word and accept his grace.  The result is utterly liberating and completely transformational, and must be lived if we are even going to begin to understand it.

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 |



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.