Occasionally, I get something stuck in my head. Here's my way of getting it out . . .
I slipped off my shoes and belt and put my watch into a small, plastic tote. A stoic guard in a grey uniform waved me through the metal detector and then preceded to pass a beeping, plastic wand around my body. I had to have my ID verified and my hand stamped. It was a bit like going through security at the airport, yet the heavy steel doors and clanging locks were a grim reminder that this place was not designed to get its patrons to another destination; it was meant to keep them there. On the back wall, a large, colorful logo hung, emblazoned with the words “Department of Corrections”.
After arriving at the chapel, I watched as rows of men in brown jumpsuits pressed through the door. They were all different. There was a man covered in tattoos, another with bushy brown hair and an unkempt beard, and another with thick, NASA-engineer glasses and a quirky grin. There were folks of every variety: black, white, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American. Yet, despite their numerous differences, those brown jumpsuits served as a reminder that the law makes no exceptions. A small, laminated card hung from a lanyard around each man’s neck, bearing his name, a mugshot, and his ID number.
As I looked out over the sea of faces from my vantage point on the stage, it was difficult to imagine that these men had all done something worthy of their current situation. They all looked so normal; just like anyone else you would meet on the street. I thought about how each one was someone’s father, husband, uncle, boyfriend, brother, or cousin. I wondered what each one had done to end up here. Though the uniformity of their appearance made it difficult to think of them individually, rather than collectively, I wondered about their stories. I wondered about their lives before they had come here; where they had lived, what job they had worked, and whom they had loved. I tried to imagine them sitting before a judge as they heard their sentence fall. I wondered how some of them must have felt, knowing that they would never see the other side of that razor-wire fence again. I thought of their families, and I wondered how many birthdays, first steps, graduations, weddings, and Christmases they were missing. I tried to imagine how it must have felt to know that you were wasting years of your life that you could be spending with those you loved because you made a stupid decision.
However, as we shared songs about the love and grace of the One Who came to save us, I watched as lips quivered, hands raised, and eyes filled with tears. I saw the gratitude in their eyes as we talked about the sacred head that was wounded for us, and the smiles on their faces as we sang about joining the feast of Heaven. I watched them sway, cry, and lift their hands in praise as they sang the name of Jesus. After the service, I was greeted with firm handshakes, broad smiles, and numerous expressions of gratitude. As I watched the way these men cared for each other, and the way that they were consumed with their desire for Jesus, it reminded me that the story that led them here was not the only one they had. Yes, they all had a story of darkness, heartache, and sorrow. They all carried deep wounds and aching regrets. They were all facing the consequences of their actions. Yet, they had another story, a better story, a story of hope. No longer were they defined by their darkness; they were defined by the light of the One they loved. No longer were they slaves to the vices that had brought them here; they were now children of God. No longer were their hands stained with the blood of the innocent; they had been washed in the blood of the spotless lamb. Though they were still labeled as offenders by the law, they were now considered sons by the Father. Though they could never change the story with which they had come, they now had a new story; a better story.
Though we may not be confined to a prison cell, we all have a darkness that we’ve tried to outrun. We all have heartache and deep regrets. We’ve all made bad decisions, and we’ve all had to face the consequences of our actions. We all have a story we’d like to forget. But just like those men, we all have another story; a better story; a new story. It’s a story that we’ve heard since we were young; a story about a brave prince and the world he came to save. It’s the story that urged Peter on as he raced to the tomb, that knocked Paul off his feet on his way to Damascus, and that burned in the hearts of the early Christians as they faced the lions in Rome. It’s a story of death and resurrection. It’s a story of light and darkness. It’s the story of Jesus. It’s the story of grace. And, best of all, it’s your story, too.
I remember the day the darkness came. I was about 14 at the time; a little boy with big dreams. My head was filled with rockets, astronauts, and landing on the moon. My biggest worries were chores and homework. I was very imaginative and was always dreaming up some new project to keep me occupied over the summer. But, unfortunately, it was this imagination that opened a doorway to something darker.
I was in my living room, sitting at the computer. School was out for the summer, so I planned to enjoy myself. I slept in a little that day, and I had just finished emailing a friend of mine whose family were missionaries in another country. Suddenly, as if a cloud had begun to form, a terrifying darkness began to slip into my mind. My stomach tightened into a knot as a paralyzing fear took up residence there. Over the next few weeks, haunting questions began to fill my mind and, though I knew they weren’t true, kept pounding into my head. Fears began to haunt me that I had never known before. I started to become more listless and introverted, trapped inside my mind. No matter whom I was with or what I was doing, these questions and fears never left me. They were always there, taking up all my energy. Then, with those fears, came the compulsions. I started to think that, because of these things that went through my mind, God must hate me and want nothing to do with me. So, I felt as if I had to do things to earn His favor. I would read my Bible and pray for hours every day, thinking that God would be angry with me if I didn’t. I would do strange and senseless rituals, thinking they were the only way to appease God. To put it simply, my mind became a living hell. Once the school year started again, I couldn’t focus on my work. My grades went down and I was always behind because, no matter what I was working on at school, my mind was constantly filled with dark whispers. I came to the point where I didn’t want to wake up in the morning, because that meant I had to face the darkness. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until the second I fell asleep at night, these fears raged inside of my head. Over time, I came to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore. I just wanted to escape; to have some peace.
Depression is kind of a “taboo” topic, because it doesn’t seem to fit in with the Christian worldview very well. As Christians, we have been set free by the blood of Christ from the power of sin. The Bible says that we have been given overwhelming victory through the One Who loved us. I think that might be why, when Christians struggle with depression, some of their fellow believers immediately diagnose it as being a problem in their spiritual life. In their mind, if you have the power of Jesus in your life, you should be able to claim victory over depression. Sadly, this kind of response often leads those who suffer from depression into a deeper darkness, feeling that they are somehow evil or lacking in faith. They stop sharing their struggles with anyone else, because they’re too afraid of what others might think. So, they put on a plastic smile and try to act like nothing is wrong while they slowly die inside.
I lived with these fears in silence for about a year. During this time, I really didn’t share with anyone what was going on inside because I was too ashamed of it. I hid in the shadows, trying my best to look fine on the outside so that no one would notice. Eventually, though, people did notice, and, slowly, I started to open up about what was going on inside. I found out that I wasn’t evil or insane, but that my brain was simply sick and needed to be “reprogrammed” to think differently. I learned that other people I knew had experienced similar circumstances, and they had learned how to deal with the darkness; this monster called “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”. But, the story doesn’t end there. It took years for me to recover and start to heal. Even to this day, I still struggle with some of the same fears and questions that plagued me when I was 14. I still hear those dark whispers at times; those voices that try to tell me that I’m not good enough to be loved. But something is different now. During some of the deepest moments of my depression, when dark voices raged in my head, I began to hear another voice calling to me through the noise. It wasn’t like the others; it was calm and gentle. It was so quiet at first that I had to strain to hear it. But, the more I listened, the louder it became. It told me that I was loved and worthy. It told me that God cared for me despite my imperfections. It told me there was hope, even when I couldn’t see it. I know now that this was the voice of God. It took a long time, but eventually, I began to believe this voice. I began to realize that God was more than a cosmic judge. During this time of darkness, I found that God was no longer just the God of my father; He became my friend.
If you’re facing your own demons right now, I wish I could tell you that everything is going to be all right, but I can’t. It may not be all right; in fact, it may get worse for a time. But I’ve been there, and I know that the Great Redeemer is making all things new; you and I included. He’s shaping our character through the things we suffer. He’s slowly making us look more like Jesus. It may take time, and you may think that all hope is gone, but if you listen closely, you will hear another whisper through the noise. It’s a sweet and gentle whisper that speaks of beauty and hope. It’s a whisper that gives you just enough courage to move ahead when you feel too scared to breathe. It’s a whisper that tells you that you are worthy and loved. Tune your ear to that whisper, believe in the hope that it offers, and it will lead you home. Take courage, dear heart; this is not the end.
The rain poured on the canvas roof of the tent, drowning out the voice of the pastor. The cold wind whipped around the tent flaps, leaving a chill in its wake. I stood about 15 feet from the grave; that solemn hole that marked the end of so much love and life. I watched the tears trace their way down so many faces, marking the deepest anguish of a human soul. Death seems so final, so wrong. You would think we’d be used to it by now, but we never seem to be. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t begin to believe that it all ends in a wooden box. There must be some point to this. There must be some purpose to it all.
We desperately try to avoid pain. We’ll do almost anything to stay far from its icy grip. And yet, it’s all around us every day. It’s in our workplaces, our schools, our churches, and even our homes. There are so many broken people. There are so many cracked and bleeding souls. There are too many question marks in this world. But, as Christians, we believe that God is in control of it all. We believe that it is His power that holds the world together, and that He has a plan for every life. But, sometimes the world doesn’t seem to fit that. Sometimes, it seems like God might not be in control at all. Or, even if He is, maybe He just doesn’t care. So, we make up useless “answers” to comfort those in pain, but we’re really just trying to comfort ourselves. “God has a plan for you.” “The Lord will make a way.” “We wouldn’t wish her back.” These phrases make their way through every hospital waiting room and graveside service, rubbing salt into the wounds of the soul. Yes, we know that God is in control. Yes, we know that they are in a better place, but that doesn’t heal the cracks in our hearts.
The Bible says that God works everything together for good, but I think we completely misinterpret that verse sometimes. We think that this means that God will essentially make a way through the pain for us to be happy, and that we just need to “grin and bear it” until He does. We cry out to God, asking Him to release us from the pain. We just want the darkness to end. And yet, in Romans 8, Paul paints a different picture from the one that we often have in our minds. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:18-21) I used to think that this verse was simply talking about the glory that will be ours one day when we cross into the Kingdom of Life. However, while I think it is referencing that, I don’t believe the meaning ends quite there. Notice that it says “the glory that will be revealed in us.” It doesn’t say “the glory that will be revealed to us.” What does this mean? How can these troubles we face bring about glory? How can this darkness be a good thing?
“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9) After Jesus was laid in the tomb, His followers thought that the end had come. They thought it was simply a tragic ending, and that another zealot had finally come face to face with Rome, and he had been defeated. But we know the ending. We know that Jesus didn’t stay in the tomb. We know that He walked out three days later and that, by His life, He gave life to us all. But none of that would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for the pain. The greatest act of redemption in history was the direct result of the deepest depravity of this broken world. The power of redemption was not found in the splendor of Jesus displayed in the resurrection, it was found in the anguish on the cross. The true glory of redemption was not found in the resurrection, it was found in the cross. It wasn’t just found in the pain, it was the pain. The true miracle was the agony that Jesus suffered. The real glory was the hurt and betrayal. Through this great darkness, Jesus learned obedience to His father, and He forever changed the course of history.
We pray for miracles, and we often find ourselves disappointed because they don’t seem to happen. But could it be that we are simply looking in the wrong spot? Could it be that we pray for a miracle, and it comes in the form of more pain? Could it be that, through the darkness we experience, we are learning obedience, just like Jesus? Could it be that our character is slowly being shaped through the things that we suffer? Could it be that the real miracle does not come through the pain; it is the pain?
We will never get used to pain, because we were never designed to know it. We were made for something greater. But I believe that nothing is wasted in the hands of the Great Redeemer. I believe He is sculpting the very essence of who we are into who we will become. I believe in new beginnings. I believe in hope. I believe there is glory waking in each one of us, and I believe that it will come to life in time.
"And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." ~ II Corinthians 3:18
I think we’ve all felt it at least once; that feeling you get when you see a handsome young man and a pretty young lady walking down the street ahead of you. As you watch them, all smiles, their hands tightly interlocked, you’re suddenly aware of just how empty your hands are. Or maybe you’re scrolling through Facebook, and your screen is filled with two beaming faces and a ring. In the comments, people are expressing their heartiest congratulations, but you can’t help but feel the pain of something a little like being left out. You walk through the store on Valentine’s Day, and you see all the flowers, cards, and chocolate, and you wish that one of them was meant for you.
Ever since the dawn of time, people have been engaging (no pun intended) in this curious thing called marriage. It’s when a guy and a girl like each other so much that they choose to live together . . . for the rest of their lives. It’s a beautiful and holy thing, because it was made by God. It’s the one of the purest forms of love, because it's a reflection of the love God has for us. We hear great expositions at weddings about it, and how it symbolizes Jesus and His church. But, unfortunately, romance seems to be a little like winning the lottery; it only happens to some people. As a result, an often-ignored question looms in the air: what happens if it doesn’t happen for me?
Before His journey into darkness, Jesus went to a garden to pray, preparing Himself for what was to come. As He writhed in the dark and bitter anguish of His broken soul, I think He experienced one of the most human of emotions; He was lonely. When He returned to His disciples, only to find them sleeping in the face of His darkest hour, He asked them, “Couldn’t you just watch with me for one hour?” In the looming shadow of the ultimate betrayal, the rejection of His Father, I believe Jesus longed for company. Though He was God, He feared what we all fear: being alone. When He was on the cross, His life slowly leaving Him, He cried out in anguish, desperate for someone to be with Him; desperate to not be alone. So, if the Great Maker of All has felt loneliness, why do we feel guilty when we do?
People seem to treat romance as either the cure for everything, or as a sign of weakness. They either loudly proclaim how wonderful their "significant other" is, or they declare how they are “single and satisfied” at an equal level of volume. But the fact is, I think it is something that we will all long for; that special connection with another human being. However, some of us may never find it. I’m writing this because I know the feeling; those lonely drives home when you turn on the radio just so it feels like there is someone else in the car, or those long nights when you cry into your pillow, wishing there was someone there with you, but there isn’t. What can we do with the loneliness? I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to this question entirely, but when I feel lonely, some of my favorite verses come from Psalm 103:2-5. “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” God knows what we need, because He’s needed it, too. He knows what it feels like to be lonely, and He has promised to give us good things. Jesus said that even sparrows cannot escape the Father’s notice, so how on Earth could you? If you’re like me, a single person who struggles with that aching grip of loneliness, I’d love to tell you that it will be alright, and that it will all work out for you in the end, but I can’t. But I do want to remind you that the very fact that you feel lonely means that you’re not alone. We’ve all been there. But Jesus wants to meet you in the darkness, and He wants to give you the very best of things. He wants to give you His heart, and He wants you to know Him in the most intimate of ways. He can make the most beautiful character from your deepest loneliness. He longs to be with you, and to walk with you when no one else can. So, take heart, dear one; whether you’re single or a sparrow, know this: you are not alone.
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." ~ Matthew 10:29-31
The spotlights flicker on and the TV cameras come into focus, trained on two people in dress clothes duking it out on the stage. They fling as much personal and political mud at the other as possible in order to make themselves appear as the better candidate. Meanwhile, the reporters critique and criticize and the crowds eat it up, their opinions shifting like a boat on a stormy sea, depending on what shocking new revelation they have just seen in their Facebook news feed. Freedom to live and believe those things that are most important to us is slowly being pulled from our grasp, all in the name of "tolerance" and "freedom of speech". All the while, that star-spangled banner that waved so long ago over Fort McHenry is slowly slipping from the pole, its foundations demolished by the shifting winds of culture.
Toward the end of the 8th chapter of the book that bears his name, Isaiah paints a pretty dark picture for his readers. He has just finished imploring God's people to return to His love, and he is outlining the harsh consequences that naturally follow from a life of disobedience.
"Look to God’s instructions and teachings! People who contradict his word are completely in the dark. They will go from one place to another, weary and hungry. And because they are hungry, they will rage and curse their king and their God. They will look up to heaven and down at the earth, but wherever they look, there will be trouble and anguish and dark despair. They will be thrown out into the darkness." (Isaiah 8:20-22)
But, suddenly, in the very next chapter, hope begins to dawn again, and from the most unexpected of places. It is not promised through a powerful king or a mighty army; it is promised through the humblest of avenues: a helpless baby boy.
"For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from
the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity."
The only hope for the star-spangled banner; for the world, for that matter, will not be found in the Oval Office. The only end to this seemingly endless darkness and despair will not come through the ballot box. The only hope for the world can be found through understanding that a child has been born, and that He was born for us. And someday soon, He will set up His own kingdom, and all will again be restored to right. There may be darkness, and there may be despair, but long after the flag has fallen, our hope will still remain.
He's covered in bruises and scratches, and you can see tears edging in the corners of his eyes. His pants are ripped and torn, and there's a bright blue dinosaur Band-Aid on both elbows. He grips the handlebars of his bane, the little red bicycle, and grits his teeth once more. He's tried a hundred times and, yet, the bike refuses to submit. He's fallen more times than he can remember, and he feels like giving up, but the image of him riding free, without the nullifying deterrants of gravity to pull him down, is the sole prize that keeps him going. So, with every bit of determination he has left, the knight once more mounts the dragon.
For some reason, human beings have decided to classify the sensations that they experience in one of two categories: pain or pleasure. We've decided that pleasure is good, and that we should pursue it, but we've decided that pain is bad, and should be avoided. As a result, we often don't even begin to pursue something that may give us the one because of the possibility of the presence of the other. So, we don't do anything at all. Or maybe, I should say, we don't do anything well. We become half-hearted about everything we do; even the things that bring us pleasure. We decide that, because something will be uncomfortable, we will not give it everything we have. Sure, we might get our feet wet, but that's about as far as we go. I believe God, however, has a different point of view. In Colossians 3:23, we are told "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters." We were never called to do things with a half-hearted will. God doesn't want folks who will get their feet wet for Him; He wants those who are willing to dive in. We are called to do everything well, and to do it with passion, because we are working for the Lord. So, whatever you do, whether it's carpentry or calculus, do it with passion, and do it well. Let's dust off ourselves, grab the handlebars, and give it all that we have. After all, even dragons must be tamed.
Hurt. I see it everywhere. No, really, I mean EVERYWHERE. It's really all you hear about in the songs on the radio, in books, in movies; the list goes on. It seems like everyone is hurting, no matter who they are. And, usually, the ones who are hurting the most are the ones who seem to have it all together. Now, it's funny, because everyone seems to take a different approach to dealing with their hurt. They either lock it up inside, like some wild animal, and try to throw away the key. Other people try to drown it out. They think that if they can just find the right job, the right hobby, or the right significant other, things will be okay again. Other people just give up, thinking life is too hard, and some even believe the lie that ending the precious flame they call their life is the answer. Well, if you're here today, and you fall into one of these categories, I'm going to tell you something that you might not like to hear all that much. Pain will never go away. The wounds will never completely stop hurting. Your broken heart will never completely mend again. But, maybe, that's not such a bad thing. We tend to think of pain as the "ultimate evil," when it is, in fact, sometimes, the greatest good. The problem is not so much the pain itself, but what it is that you are doing with it. Inside of every human heart, there is a hole that only one thing can fill. That's why, so many years ago, a great Redeemer came to this planet to have His heart broken in order to start mending ours. He knows exactly what it feels like to hurt, and He's in the business of making all things new; broken hearts included. So, take your pain to Him, and allow Him to fill that hole in your heart and use your pain to paint the most beautiful picture you've ever seen. Stop trying to find your identity in what you can do or in who thinks you're special. Find your identity in the One Who gave it to you. Broken hearts are not always a bad thing. After all, the cracks are where the light gets through.
Everything will be okay in the end, If it's not okay, then it's not the end.
You know, sometimes we really think we're something. We tend to think that, because we've been "pretty good" all our lives, we're not really in need of redemption. Oh, sure, we'd never admit that, but that's kinda the way we seem to think. But if you really stop and take a look at yourself sometime; at all the things that you've done that you regret, you might see a different picture. All those things might not seem so bad at first; everyone makes mistakes, right? But, then, look at what those "bad habits" cost. Look at that man hanging, naked and bleeding, on a cross. See the blood oozing from His open wounds. Hear the pained and labored breathing. Smell the stench of death, and then, realize that that's exactly what your sin looks like. That's exactly how it smells. It smells like death. In fact, it is death. It cost Someone His life. When you look at it that way, then you begin to realize what you don't have, and, most importantly, what you've been given. The Bible tells us that God so loved the world that He came to save us. He came to save us, as twisted, dirty, and messed-up as we are. He came to make us new. So, the key to grasping what we've been given is first understanding what we don't have. But, we shouldn't let the shame and regret from that old stuff that we did control us. All that shame is gone now; nailed on the cross with Jesus. So, extend the same mercy and grace to yourself that God gave to you, accept who you are in Him now, and enjoy the view from this side of grace.
"For the law was given through Moses, but God's unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ." John 1:17
Today is Good Friday. All around the world, people commemorate the death of God. There are poems read, plays performed, songs played, and prayers read. Everyone is doing something to remember the significance of this day. However, no matter what is done, nothing will really do that. Nothing will ever give us the same idea of how it felt to watch God die. There, hanging naked for all the world to see, was God. No poem, song, play, or prayer can ever capture that. They were never meant to. However, when I think today of Jesus and how He died, I remember that it was my sin that held Him there. Now, we say that in church as a kind of colloquialism, but none of us really mean it. We all think we're pretty good people down inside. But I know that today, my nasty, sick, and perverted heart was once again forced into my face. Today, I am forced to hear the screams, see the blood, and smell the sweat. And in all this, I see my dark heart and my sin. I really see myself for the hopeless wreck that I am. And I realize that every time I sin, I drive those nails deeper. It reminds me that I have murdered God, and that every time I presume on His grace, I am showing just how worthless I think His sacrifice is.
Today reminds of my sin, but also my redemption. It reminds me that there is hope in the darkest of times. On this day, I am reminded that I don't live in a world of happy endings. But maybe that's not such a bad thing. Because with every end, there comes a new beginning.
"He was despised and rejected - a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief." Isaiah 53:3
For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about honestly lately. You know, I think that's one thing that we, as Christians, do really badly. Oh, sure, we won't tell a lie; in fact, we probably don't even know we're being dishonest. What exactly am I talking about? Well, I'm talking about how, every Sunday and Wednesday night at church, we talk about the "ideal Christian." We reference him in every referral to the Christian life. We act like that's where we all should be, and, if you aren't, the unspoken question is, "What's wrong with you?!" Well, maybe you have made it here. If you have, you should probably just stop reading right now, as this won't really make any sense to you. I personally come from a long past of not being there, and every day is a struggle for perfection. It doesn't matter how hard I try, or how long I pray; I will never be that ideal Christian. Sure, I know all the theory and theology, but there's too much messiness and stubbornness in my heart to get it right. It's sort'a like some of those crazy ideas you had as a kid. You thought sure they would work, but, when you actually tried them, you usually ended up with a sore something; whether it was your pride or your backside.
When reality hits the dream, you'll start to realize that being this Christian is impossible. However, I don't think that means that we have to give up in despair. After all, if it was possible to be this Christian, would you even want to be? Being a Christian is about being on a journey. It's about a world of pain and unhappy endings. It's about a battle. So, may I suggest to you that next time you start feeling guilty for not being the ideal Christian, you remember that you may be exactly where God wants you to be. It's awesome to want to be more like Jesus, but don't get too caught up in that. Just be honest with yourself and others about where you are, and don't get so preoccupied with becoming a better Christian that you forget to enjoy the view right where you are.