Not Without Witness: An Easter Reflection

…[A]nd then, suddenly, we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe. — Richard Dawkins

Easter Sunday is the Christian’s yearly reminder that our faith is unlike any other. Where other religions traffic in the elusive and the intangible, Christianity is planted firmly in the concrete. No other religion places the stakes so high. The Apostle Paul wrote that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is vain. If this physical event did not take place at this physical moment in time, when Caiaphas was the high priest, Pilate was the governor, and Tiberius was the emperor, then we are of all men most miserable.

The mundane particularity of it all must not be lost. It marks the place where our faith is anchored. We trust not in a comforting notion or a platitude, but in the most real and solid of occurrences: a man dead, and that same man alive again.

We human beings are creatures of the tangible. We invest ourselves emotionally in what we can see, touch, and embrace. When those bonds are broken, whether through betrayal, loss, or simple loneliness, maintaining faith in things beyond our grasp does not come easily to us. This is why it’s not enough to encourage a doubting friend by saying, “You just need to believe harder.” We must be prepared to answer the question, “Why should I?” Yet we have the answer. Indeed, we have the best possible answer. The gospel is a record of a real moment in real time, preserved and handed down from generation to generation. On some days we feel like believing it. Other days, we may not. It doesn’t matter. The record remains, an ever-fixed mark.

Christian, ask yourself not what you feel, but what you know. Perhaps your pastor had a profound moral failing, and perhaps the church board turned a blind eye. You feel betrayed, but what do you know? Perhaps you are caught in a vicious cycle of temptation. You feel despairing, but what do you know? Perhaps you simply can’t sense God’s presence like you used to. You feel isolated, but what do you know?

This is where our hope is found: It is found in the still-empty tomb of the One who who did not leave himself without witness. In the words of the Apostle John, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

This Easter week, let us encourage ourselves and each other with this great good news: that while in this world we will have trouble, Christ has overcome the world.


If Your Life Has Purpose, You Are Busy

The other day, one of my professors greeted us all in his charming German accent and asked “How are you?” I replied, “Busy. Very busy.” He said, “Good, good. Then it means your life has purpose. If you have a purpose, you are busy.”

This semester has really been snowing me under with the combination of graduate-level courses and my new assistantship duties. My days are long and densely packed. Even when I’m not in class, I constantly have my head in the books, because with classes this hard you can’t afford not to. But my schedule means I don’t have the little luxuries I’ve enjoyed in other semesters. I have to turn in graded work without having an extra day to be extra sure I’m doing it right. I’m not able to memorize everything I’d like to memorize. I don’t have time to write rambling notes to myself unpacking every concept thoroughly. I sometimes have to let one course lag while I focus on a particular assignment in another, then resign myself to the fact that there’s probably something I’ll forget to review before the first course’s midterm. (Either that, or turn in an incomplete assignment and let the professor who gives too much homework accept the fact that I have other classes to attend to!)

But even while all this is mentally and physically taxing, there’s a certain sense in which I’m proud of it. Continue reading “If Your Life Has Purpose, You Are Busy”

A Moment Made for Worshipping

In  case you hadn’t already guessed, music is a very important part of my life. I have a running soundtrack for whatever activity I’m doing at the moment. There are the relaxing songs, the walking songs, the driving songs, the night driving songs, etc., etc., etc.

So naturally, there were the “first day of school” songs yesterday (plus some “night driving doubling as super early morning” songs). Titles included immortal classics such as the Beatles’ “Obla Di, Obla Da (Life Goes On),” Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” The latter came on fortuitously as I was chugging back home from a loooong morning of music theory and linear algebra.

But the first song I hit “play” on wasn’t any of those. It was actually a song by Steven Curtis Chapman that’s become a bit of a traditional “morning song” for me. Literally, the first line is “6:30 Monday morning, I’m here hiding in my bed.” But I’ve always liked the message in this song—that every moment represents a choice, to worship God in it or blow past it. No matter what we do, the name of the Lord is always worthy to be praised, from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same. I hope that’s a good reminder for someone this morning:

Devotional Thought: Holy Union

Last week I went to a friend’s wedding. She was not my very closest friend, but I knew her, and I was close friends with some of her close friends. I was expecting to enjoy the ceremony. I certainly wasn’t expecting to do an “ugly cry.”

But I did. Because beauty snuck up on me. She has a way of doing that.

First the groomsmen came, walking briskly all in a line, sharp-looking young men all in black suits. Then came the bridesmaids one by one, walking slowly and gracefully in dresses that reached the floor. And I believe it was then that the pint-sized flower girl made her way up the aisle, radiating adorableness in every direction. Upon reaching the front, she promptly dumped the flower petals out of her basket. There were ripples of laughter.

Then came the bride, in a pure white gown that was both modest and stunning. Her father was not present, so she walked half-way up the aisle by herself. That was when the groom came down from the front, met her, and gave her his arm to walk the rest of the way.

And that was when I lost it. It was the first time I’d seen the bride and groom together. The sheer joy that was shining from their faces as their eyes met was indescribable. In that moment, I saw everything I wanted my own future to be. I saw contentment upon contentment, grace upon grace. Holiness upon holiness.

We sat through the rest of the service as the preacher spoke, as they said their vows, and as they took communion while a pianist played special music. Finally, the groom kissed his bride, and we broke our own silence with uproarious applause.

I realized it had been a long time since I’d seen a wedding—six years now. And I’ve spent so much time fighting the corruption of marriage, the corruption of love itself in the form of homosexuality that I think God knew my soul needed to be refreshed. He knew that I needed a flesh-and-blood reminder of what a perfect, holy union looks like: one man and one woman, pure in body, heart and mind, committed to God and each other ’til death should part them.

We live in a fallen world, and still God reveals Himself. Still He gives us foretastes of glory divine. For how much more glorious will that final marriage celebration be? How much more beautiful the moment when Jesus carries His bride over the threshold of His kingdom?

The marriage-feast is waiting,
The gates wide open stand;
Up, up, ye heirs of glory!
The Bridegroom is at hand.

— “Rejoice, Rejoice Believers”

Memorial Day Devotional: “Earn This”

Saving Private Ryan is an iconic war movie, deeply moving and powerfully composed. Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of film that were I to recommend it at all, I would do so only with the most extreme reservations (at a minimum, one should skip the entire 25-30 minute opening sequence where about 90% of the violence is concentrated, though other problematic issues such as pervasive foul language still remain). However, I would like to share and discuss the movie’s (non-violent) closing moments today, because they are very beautiful and offer fertile discussion ground for Memorial Day.

To briefly fill in the background for those who are unfamiliar with the film, it tells the story of a small unit tasked to find the youngest and last of several sons in the war. All of his brothers have died in action, and the army has decided to find him and bring him home so that his mother won’t lose all her children. It is only towards the end of the film that they finally find Ryan (Matt Damon), so the main character is actually Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks), the leader of the unit. In an honest moment, he’ll admit that he doesn’t relish any part of what he does, and he wants to get the war over with as quickly as possible so he can get back to his wife and her rosebushes and continue being an English teacher.

The quest to find Ryan is slow and painful, as they know only that he is MIA somewhere in Normandy with no further specifics. Miller loses two of his six men in the process, causing him to opine bitterly that Ryan had better “cure some disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something…” to make this all worth it. But when they find the young soldier, they’re surprised to find that he refuses to leave his brothers in arms (“the only brothers I have left”) until they have carried out their orders to defend a bridge against an approaching German mechanized unit. So Miller makes the choice to stay with Ryan and take command of the operation. In the brief calm before the storm, he gets to know the kid a little better and even seems to find it in his heart to start liking him.

When the final battle hits, most of the rest of Miller’s unit dies, including (ultimately) Miller himself. As Ryan comes and sits with him in his final moments, Miller draws the boy to himself and whispers, “James… earn this. Earn it.” While on the surface this just seems like a continuation of his bitter early rants, the earnestness with which he makes this last request indicates both that his meaning is deeper and that it comes from a deeper place within himself. Then he dies. The camera focuses on Ryan’s face as we hear George C. Marshall in voiceover, informing Mrs. Ryan that her son is coming home. Then it cross-fades to the old Ryan at Miller’s grave. Instead of continuing to describe how the last few minutes of the film unfold, I’ll let you watch it for yourself(or re-watch it if you’ve seen it before). It never fails to put a lump in my throat. If you are unfamiliar with the scene, you should take a minute to do so here (Godtube link) before continuing to read my thoughts on it (the clip begins with Miller’s death and continues to the end). Continue reading “Memorial Day Devotional: “Earn This””

Devotional Thought: Freedom

Are you the kind of person who tends to blame yourself for everything? If so, then you’re a lot like me.

Like the song says, when something goes wrong, I’m the first to admit it. I’m always second-guessing myself in every area of life. It ranges from the trivial (did I get everything right on that quiz?) to the less trivial (have I done wrong by a friend?)

It doesn’t really matter how unjustly I’m treated. It doesn’t really matter how obviously I’m in the right. I will always find some way to excuse the other party, particularly if that person is someone I look up to or trust. Whatever has gone wrong, in the end it must be my fault, somehow.

Recently I came to a point where I was finally able to let go of something I’d been beating myself up over for a long time. I realized the truth—that I was not guilty. I was free. I didn’t have to carry around that burden anymore. Even though the truth was something sad that I hadn’t wanted to admit, it freed me from that burden.

If you’re clinging to needless guilt, let go of it now, today. There are plenty of crosses you will not be able to avoid bearing in life, crosses God means for you to bear. Don’t add ones of your own making.

Devotional Thought: “I’m Tired”

I’m tired. If you followed me around you’d hear me mumbling a lot: “I’m tired. I’m tired. Wait, did I say that already?” I don’t get enough sleep at night because of chronic sciatica from a twisted spine. Some nights are better than others, but it’s never perfect. Sometimes it’s, “I’m tired and my back hurts,” or “My back hurts and I’m tired” for variety.

The thing is though, I’m not always tired, even when I say that to myself. So why do I? Well, I think a lot of times, I’m really saying more than just “I’m tired.” I’m saying, “I’m anxious. I’m discouraged. I’m frustrated. I’m annoyed with myself and others.”

I worry about everything. The little things and the big things. I nit-pick. I obsess. I beat myself up. “Did I do this or that just right? Did I grovel enough for this or that mistake? Is everything okay? If it’s not, is it my fault?” (It often takes me a long time to let myself believe that something ISN’T my fault, even when it quite obviously isn’t. Instead I make excuses for everyone else.)

I care about everything. In some ways this is good, because it means I have a very large, tender heart. But in some ways this is bad, because it means that I care at times when it’s wiser, better and healthier not to care.

I know the Bible doesn’t say that worriers shall have their part in the lake of fire along with murderers and what-not, but I know I’m not supposed to do it. Jesus said I’m not supposed to do it. He said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” In other words, don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. And don’t borrow unnecessary trouble.

That’s exactly what I do. Some things I worry about legitimately. I do have truly heavy burdens on my heart that keep me plenty worried for a good reason, sometimes to the point where everything else doesn’t seem to matter. But there are other times when I borrow unnecessary trouble, because I care too much about things to let them go. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” was never assimilated into my brain. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting.

And maybe that’s why I’m so tired all the time. I worry, care and think too much about things and people I don’t need to knock myself out worrying, caring and thinking about. (Wow, that was a clunky sentence.) I need to enjoy this peaceful time in my life while I have it. Later I’ll have to care about more things. But not yet. I can relax for now. I can let tomorrow take care of itself. And even in the days to come when I will have still more reasons to worry, I can let the anxiety melt away if I trust that God knows me, my heart, and my future.

And so can you.

By the way, I think this is a blog post that speaks to me where I’m at right now, and if you’re like me it may be helpful for you too.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Ox, Nor His NQC Ticket

What does it mean to covet? I’ve always had a general idea of “coveting” as “wishing you could have or enjoy something someone else has or enjoys.” But I think that general notion can be separated into two very different things.

Let’s imagine your friend Joe gets a ticket to go to NQC for the first time, and you can’t go because you can’t afford it. When he joyfully informs you of his good fortune, let’s say your first reaction is, “Hey man congrats! Wish I could go too, but I can’t make it this year. :-(”

Now, are you coveting Joe’s ticket? You’re wishing you could have something he has, but I think true covetousness would manifest itself a little differently. This is best illustrated with the old story about a Russian peasant who rubs a bottle and encounters a genie. Said genie offers him a wish, and when he launches into a rant about how unfair it is that his friend Ivan has a goat and he doesn’t, the genie says, “Ah! Then is your wish that I should give you a goat?” “No!” replies the peasant. “I want Ivan’s goat to die!”

True covetousness means you want Ivan’s goat to die. It would be like “accidentally” tripping your friend so that he falls and breaks his leg on the week before NQC. “Whoops! So sorry about that Joe. Guess you’re not going to NQC this year after all.” Or even if you don’t break his leg directly, hoping he breaks his leg so that he can give away his ticket to someone who would really appreciate it (cough, cough). Or hoping that happens even if he gives it away to someone else, because then at least Joe wouldn’t get to go to NQC, which is the most important thing.

The point is, don’t feel guilty if you have a wistful twinge next time someone else gets to go to NQC and you don’t, or someone else gets a raise and you don’t, or… [fill-in-the-blank with your own scenario]. That’s natural and innocent. What’s not innocent is building up resentment towards that other person, or constantly obsessing over the fact that you’re not able to have what they have, to the point where you’d do anything just in order for him not to have it… even if nothing changed for you.

No, not the best man I know…

One of my favorite works of Christian literature is A Man For All Seasons. I think every Christian who appreciates excellence and beauty mixed with truth should obtain a copy of this play, based on the life and death of Thomas More. It’s written by Robert Bolt. It’s not a long read, and it’s incredibly well written. I highly recommend it if you have yet to read it. There are many great moments of dialogue, but one of the most profound things More himself wrote actually never made it into the play. He said “I never intend, God being my good Lord, to pin my soul to another man’s back, not even the best man that I know.”

Christians talk a lot, and rightly so, about the idols of the world. We look around us and see people exalting all manner of things where Jesus Christ ought rightfully to be lifted up instead. And sometimes they are other people. We call them celebrities. But I think Christians can be guilty of the very same thing. I’ve seen a secular news outlet describe one pastor as being “like a rock star,” and it disturbs me to think that perhaps many of his fans would not feel the slightest misgiving over that connotation. It is a tragic thing that many pastors in the Church today are deliberately cultivating a style of preaching and a style of “theology” designed to win over more and more such “fans.”

But the point I’d like to make today is that idolatry doesn’t have to be this obvious or this dangerous. In fact, it may start very innocently and naturally. We all have those favorite singers and preachers who seem to be strong men of God, whom we deeply respect and admire. We spend a lot of time listening to and thinking carefully about what they have to say, because we think we can just see God’s light shining through and from them.

This is where Thomas More’s words become applicable. The sad truth is that because man is fallen, we may try as hard as we can to place our trust somewhere secure, but we are not always borne out in our judgment. Does this mean we should suspect everybody and trust no one man more than another? Absolutely not. God gave us discernment and common sense for a reason, and it is a good thing to take wisdom from those leaders he has blessed. But, we must remember where our hope must ultimately lie, and it lies not with any mortal man, no, not the best man we know.

Paul Washer is a preacher I’ve been learning to respect very much lately, but he himself warns against this very kind of thing. The clip I’ll share with you today contains a lot of wisdom on the topic, and I’d encourage you to watch it through. It’s from an interview that was taped a couple years ago where he answered questions people had sent in. As a Christian, I feel convicted by the complete honesty and humility I see here. (Note: The last couple of minutes are related to a side question and aren’t as pertinent as the rest of the video, although excellent for what they do address.)

My favorite part might be 11:45 to roughly 13:00, when he talks about his greatest fear as a minister.

I Forgive You

How hard can it be to forgive?

Much harder than we think.

I’m not talking about forgiveness as in, “Hey, I forgive you for forgetting all about our lunch date the other day.” I’m talking about forgiveness when you’ve been wronged, and you can’t seem to let it go. I’m talking about forgiveness when you really don’t want to forgive. You’d rather let the grievance sit there, sucking away your emotional energy, festering and making you bitter.

Some people might think that it’s hardest to forgive your enemies. I suppose that might be true if you are like Corrie Ten Boom. But most of us will never suffer what she suffered. I wonder whether in real, everyday life, it is harder to forgive your enemies. Could it be that it’s actually harder to forgive our friends? And could it be that the closer they are, the harder it is? Maybe it’s true that only a friend can come close enough to ever cause so much pain. The hardest thing is being misjudged and mistreated by someone you love. That’s why it’s so hard to forgive when a parent walks out, or a spouse walks out. Perhaps forgiving a family member is the very hardest thing of all.

But what if they don’t want our forgiveness? What if they never ask for it? What if they don’t even realize they need it?

Sometimes when a person never asks, it is better not to give it to him immediately. This is what I mean: Sometimes we like to say “I forgive you” when we really haven’t forgiven the person. But we say it to get back at him in a way, to rub in the fact that we are magnanimously giving him something he hasn’t asked for. Our hearts are not true forgiveness. Instead, we need to wait until we really have forgiven the person in our hearts. And only then do we say, “I forgive you.”

On the other hand, it can be tempting to say, “Well, since I can’t honestly say that I forgive this person yet, maybe I should stop trying.” You can’t do this either, because if you do, you will not be at peace with God, or your friend, or yourself. But I believe that if you humbly come before God and say, “God, I can’t forgive my friend by myself. Help me to forgive,” then he will work what needs to be worked in your heart.

It can also be helpful to get a sense of perspective. Some people carry deep wounds with them, but others have such a limited outlook on life that the height of unfairness for them is having comments needlessly deleted on a blog. We can be genuinely hurt, but sometimes  in a way that is not worth brooding over. And the moment we focus on what Jesus did at the cross, suddenly it becomes harder to hold onto our own small grudges. If Jesus could forgive his friend Judas for betraying him unto death, surely we can forgive our friends when they are simply stubborn and hurtful.