The Hunger for Significance

Last month, I spoke with a friend who’s been noticing something that worries him. He recently helped host a conference for Christian students to bring revival onto school campuses, where they invited a bunch of famous pastors and worship leaders, and hundreds of fired up youth attended. The conference was an incredible time of empowerment, he said. But while spending time with all these leaders, both veteran and young, he sensed this covert, driving tension among them—a restlessness—and it worried him. The more he paid attention, the more he could see what it was: the hunger for significance.

When he called it out, I suddenly felt exposed—he didn’t know it, but he was talking about me. I’d been feeling restless with my life for the past several months and anxiously thinking I needed to make a change, to do something more. I was being driven by a hunger for significance. And I don’t think I’m alone. There’s a growing restlessness in my generation: a dissatisfaction with our current positions, an eagerness for new opportunities, an urgent pressure to be a part of something bigger and better. People are feeling more and more inadequate, overlooked, and insecure. Something’s wrong.

A few weeks later, a documentary about Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped me understand the heart of the issue.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Fred Rogers became a national icon through his children’s television show, on which he always repeated his trademark sentiment, “You’re special just the way you are”—a statement that was less a cute catchphrase and more a deeply held conviction. But in his time, Fred Rogers was publicly criticized, some even saying on national television, “Mr. Rogers is ruining an entire generation.” They argued that because he was telling kids that they were special just the way they were, they would grow up to become entitled and lazy, unwilling to work and accomplish anything. Years later, Mr. Rogers addressed these accusations in a university commencement speech: “When I tell children that they are special just the way they are, what I am saying is that there is nothing they need to do to be loved.”

To be honest, Mr. Rogers’ response didn’t seem very adequate to me, and I couldn’t help but kind of agree with his critics. It felt wrong to side with them, but deep down, they made sense. But as I reflect on the issue of significance, I realize that I resonated with those critics because we operated from the same basic principle: significance comes from accomplishment. If that’s true, then if you tell kids they are already significant, they’ll have no motivation to accomplish anything. But Mr. Rogers was saying that significance doesn’t come from accomplishment, but rather from simple, relational, human-to-human love. Accomplishments have nothing to do with it. It needs to be distinguished: significance is fulfilled through being loved, while accomplishments are achieved as a response to our sense of compassion (but that’s a different conversation). They’re separate issues.

To clarify, a personal sense of significance is the feeling that you are important, valuable, and worthy of love. I emphasize “feeling” because from an objective theological perspective, we unanimously agree that all people are important, valuable, and worth loving. But if you don’t feel that way—if you don’t experience the reality of it—you’ll continue to hunger for significance, whether you know you’re hungry for it or not. The hunger might just take the form of a persistent, gnawing feeling of restlessness. The problem, though, isn’t the fact that we desire to experience personal significance, because it’s a fundamental human need. The question is how you meet it.

Since I’d always learned that significance comes from accomplishments, then as soon as I started feeling insignificant and restless, my response was automatic: You’re not doing enough. Find a better job. Get a more respectable position. Go on an epic mission trip. Join a new ministry. Become a leader. Do something. Do better. Do more. What’s unsettling is that this drive has actually led me to do a lot of good, Christian work… When we derive our significance from accomplishment, we’re prone to hijack the good works of God to feed our unmet needs, always trying prove something, earn something, or make ourselves feel better about who we are.

Of course, this means that instead of trying to do more to feel significant, we need to come to God with our hunger for significance and experience His love. That’s a good prescription and where we ought to begin. But as I start there, I’m surprised at what I’m finding to be God’s miraculous method of healing me of my performance-driven sense of worth. It’s the gift of friendship. I mean REAL friends—ones who love me as I truly am, who aren’t impressed by my front but choose to see the greatness hidden in me, who enjoy me and appreciate me, who carry my pain with me as I hurt, who even laugh at my jokes that aren’t that funny. I feel like I’m discovering this gift all over again, for the very first time, and I’m relearning what it means just to have a friend. I’m learning the responsibility it takes to commit to walking together, how to love one another not as we prefer but as they need, how to listen, how to speak up and be heard, how scary it is to let myself depend on them, and the vulnerability it takes in expressing my need for them. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been beautiful. They are teaching me how to be loved, and letting me experience what it means to feel significant before I’ve accomplished anything. They have been one of God’s sweetest expressions of his love in my life; they’re my vessels of his grace.

And for those who might be uncomfortable with the idea of “depending” on other people, remember that God himself has his own community. It’s astounding if you consider it—God allows us to experience the loftiest realm of theology, the deep mystery, God’s communal oneness, the Trinity, through something we stumble into as unknowing children on the playground: friendship.

The Story That Makes Us

[Originally written for The Meeting Place ministry and published on their blog here.]

I recently discovered some new details about my parents’ marriage that explain so much about my family growing up. I’ve always viewed my childhood through a fog, a vague sadness that I couldn’t explain, but now I feel like I’m being brought back to the trauma of my childhood with a sharp clarity that’s smacking me in the face. I’m seeing my past, my story, in a way I’ve never seen it before.

I’m realizing that certain parts of who I am, of how I think and function in life, have been shaped by the pain of my childhood. My recurring fears, insecurities, and defenses have deep roots there, and I’m understanding the why behind many of my most frustrating behaviors. It feels like I’m seeing myself for who I really am, and I don’t like what I see. I don’t just have some bad habits; I have scars. It’s brutal. And I feel more broken now than I ever have since I first became a Christian.

Yet in the midst of it, I feel His grace. He’s with me, gently encouraging, “It’s time.”

A mentor of mine explained to me once that the most helpful step in finding healing from the past is to first move forward. For some of us, I believe God gives us a measure of grace early on in our faith that helps us do that. It’s like a veil, a gracious ignorance, where we’re somehow able to dissociate from certain crippling experiences, circumstances, habits, or scars we carry that we aren’t yet ready to confront. The brokenness sinks into the background and the problems miraculously disappear. God provides the peace we need to embrace our new identity and work on making our new life with Him. We learn, we grow, we mature, we develop new relationships, discover new purpose, and continue to build the beautiful future.

But eventually, in God’s time, the veil lifts. What we thought we’d never have to deal with again rears its ugly head. It’s frustrating because we thought we solved this and now it feels like we regressed, like we’re right back where we started, no better than what we used to be. But that’s not true. It’s only because we’ve moved forward that now we can go back. Because we’ve grown stronger and found the support we need to anchor us, it’s time to deal with our roots.

The book of Genesis tells a story about Jacob, who’s grown up to become a wealthy, successful man. One day he finds himself in a crisis, confronted by his brother Esau whom he had cheated a long time ago. Jacob is scared, and starts to pray. He spends the night wrestling with God, refusing to let Him go until he receives a blessing. Finally, God asks Jacob one thing: “What is your name?”

The last time Jacob sought a blessing, he had pretended to be someone he was not. He lied about who he was. When God asks Jacob for his name, Jacob returns to that time in his past. He remembers that he was born in second place, that his father didn’t love him, that his older brother was always the better hunter, that his mother was scheming and manipulative, and that the only way he would ever get his father’s blessing was to lie and say that he was Esau. This was what led him to become who he is—this is his story. He confesses, “My name is Jacob.”

And when Jacob faced who he was, God revealed who he would become: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel.” As Jacob owned his past, he was gifted with his destiny.

If the truth about my parents’ marriage had hit me ten years ago, I don’t think I could have handled it. Rather than helping me understand who I am, it would have just dismantled me. I was too weak, my faith too shallow. But things are different now. I’m different. I can trust in God’s faithfulness in a way that I couldn’t before, because we’ve gone through so much together and He’s brought me so far. I can trust in His love for me, because He’s proved it a thousand times.

And so as He asks me to confront my past, I know that He’s leading me and always with me. I can lean on His goodness; I can stand in the storm. It’s hard, but feeling exposed, weak, and broken again is a price worth paying to finally accept who I am and embrace my true story.

 

A Place to Start

I’m really fascinated by the magic of unlearned human expressions. No one has to teach a kid to laugh when he’s happy, to pout when he’s upset, or to jump up and down when he’s celebrating. It’s so normal, but still surprisingly difficult to understand. It’s as if our internal experiences of joy, anger, success, or disgust take up real space in our bodies and need to be released, to be realized, in ways that words won’t always suffice, through physical, affective language. Like a kind of food: we take it in, absorb it, and then need to fart it out. We use these funny little mannerisms like laughter to digest the substance of life, to grab hold of it and feel it, to let it flow through us, to make it real.

Tears are particularly mysterious: they often come unexpected, from somewhere hidden, and we generally seem to want to avoid them. If laughter and smiles are how we experience joy, I think tears are the language our spirit uses to experience pain… Or something like that. I’m not exactly sure to be honest haha. But I think it’s how our heart deals with a certain kind of pain, the kind beneath the surface, that our minds aren’t ready to consciously process.

In times of prayer, I’ve seen people cry with a heaving, visceral agony, and if you asked them, they wouldn’t be able to explain why they cried so hard. Maybe they’re experiencing the love of God, but I don’t think that’s why they cry. It’s not love itself that evokes tears; it’s the pain of a lifetime spent deprived of it. See, an average child’s stomach will growl for food when it’s hungry, while a starving child’s belly is disturbingly stoic. To protect itself from the pain, their stomach doesn’t make a sound, doesn’t feel a thing—until you finally feed it, at which the starved stomach rouses, and screams. Our heart, too, will numb itself to the pain when it’s too much to bear. Love is what it needs, but when it’s been starved for so long, it can be painful to receive it.

We have the ability, however, to actually live out our entire lives without ever opening the raw parts of our heart, without ever letting our pain release. You experience the hurt, the injustice, the disappointment, the betrayal, and then, after your immediate reactions, you quickly move on from it. You pull yourself together, forget it, and you bury it.

But pain lingers. It sits in our spirit and weighs down on us. It’s no longer on the surface, but we’re left with a vague and distant ache, an unexplained lump in our throat, an unspoken anger, a sense of wrong, like a shameful secret locked away. Even when it’s buried, the wound echoes through us in a dull, voiceless sadness.

 

There was a time when I was with a young lady I was beginning to fall in love with who surprised me with a simple gesture. We were holding hands when she raised her other hand and placed it on my cheek, just above my neck. I was slightly taken aback because it was unexpected, but I found that it actually made me feel loved. When I told her that, she looked back at me thoughtfully and then asked, “Do you not feel loved very often?” The question caught me vulnerable. As I looked for the answer, something heavy slowly stirred in my gut and tears started welling up in my chest, and I needed a second to compose myself. She was patient, and she held a gracious moment of space for me, giving me the careful time I needed to be honest with myself. “No, I don’t.”

A few hours later when I pulled up at my apartment, sitting in my car alone, I considered that small exchange again and my reaction to it. As I pondered it, I found myself crying—not just because I felt loved, but because I finally realized and let myself admit how much I need it, how lonely I’ve been, and how hard I’ve been trying to be strong on my own. I started to pray… I don’t know if you would call it that, because I didn’t have anything to say. But I let God be there with me. As He waited, I unraveled, my tears a quiet confession, and I felt His gentle hand comfort me, His angels gathering near to watch over me with grace and warmth.

 

In the following weeks I reached out to a few trusted friends and mentors to help me prayerfully process what was going on in me, why, and where to go from here. We examined the roots, searched my childhood trauma, identified the lies and connected the dots. It was an important process that I’m still enduring. But that night, alone in my car, as something that was locked and buried in me began to unearth, it was enough to just admit the pain, and feel it.

It’s interesting because even before my moment in the car, I never really had a hard time telling people about my experiences of failure, abandonment, depression or abuse. I could talk about the facts and details of it without shedding a tear. I think there’s a difference between just recognizing the facts of a painful event and actually letting yourself re-experience the pain of it. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge it objectively in your head and stay emotionally disengaged. That’s like looking at your pain through a thick wall of safety glass. Before we can truly heal from it, we need to hold it, to feel it, to step inside it. The pain needs to be engaged and expressed; it needs first to breathe, to spread its awful wings and expend its energy, and only then be put to rest in peace. When we brush off the pain and choke it down in the name of being strong and moving on, it takes root in us, digs into our soul, bleeds into our core, and over time inevitably influences the way we think and live, without our permission.

My pastor told me once that tears are a sign of God beginning to heal our hearts of pain that our minds aren’t yet ready to understand. It’s part of God’s mysterious work of mending the deep places of the human soul. Sometimes people pressure us into verbally processing our painful experiences, saying we need to talk about it or explain it. They don’t mean harm—they just really want to solve it, probably because they care about us. Talking about it is of course important, but perhaps in its own time. We don’t have to force it. Sometimes we don’t know what to think or say, and we aren’t always ready to approach it so bluntly. Maybe that’s okay for now… Our hearts can only take so much. Perhaps all we can handle right now is to just shut our eyes and carefully reach out to touch the faint outline of that sleeping, radiating pain we’ve buried. Maybe we aren’t ready to understand it, but we can let ourselves feel it. Maybe we’re too scared to look it in the face, but we can stand in its shadow. Maybe we can’t confront it, but we can stop pretending we don’t hurt. That isn’t nothing. That, too, takes courage. And for today, maybe that’s enough.

My Response to a Friend’s Question

“I have a friend who’s falling away… What do I say to her?”

Hahahahaha. Sigh…

I don’t know. The reality is hard to stomach: either your friend ultimately holds on somehow as she looks to God, or she just slips away. And only God can keep us to Himself… I don’t know. It’s times like these that test love for Jesus, y’know? If it’s true or not, if it’s lasting. God’s “tests” aren’t there for her to prove it to you or me, but for her to know it for herself, between her and God. God already knows, because He’s the one who breathes it into us. But sometimes we need to know for ourselves, too, and the test draws it out. The Apostle Peter tells us to “make your calling and election sure…” It makes me think of the song, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back.” Did you see that article about it?

I feel like the depth of our intimacy with God can be measured by the weight of our sacrifices. And sometimes our biggest sacrifice is, in the midst of all the uncertainty and discouragement, to choose to say, “Still, I will follow.” It sounds like just a decision, but it’s a sacrifice, isn’t it? It’s hard as hell. We let go of our need for understanding, our entitlement to an explanation, our comforts and dreams. It’s an offering of yourself despite it all, a confession of persistent love, a living sacrifice. It’s like each moment of pain, loss, failure, injustice and disappointment is like a giant boulder that falls on our path and puts a fork in the road. One way chooses to say, “Still, I will follow.” The other way, I guess, doesn’t say anything at all. The decision your friend makes in her heart can either deepen the roots of her commitment to the Lord or put her on a road that might not lead back.

I don’t really know if your friend is even ready to hear these kinds of things, or how she needs to hear it. But that’s really the truth of salvation: we don’t know it’s true until we’ve walked it to the end of the road. But by then, we’ve owned it, and we’ve treasured it, with every decision to stay made with a thousand wounds and a million tears. Every heart wrenching “yes” makes the prize shine a little brighter; every painful, beautiful confession of “Still, I will follow” makes our home with Him a little bit sweeter.

Frederick Beuchner said this:

If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and great laughter.

Your friend… I don’t know. I really, really don’t. This happens so often, and I never know what to do. I still don’t. I still feel helpless, every time.

But maybe the best thing, I think, is to let her know, with your own wounds bared, that many, many people have been where she is before—and actually, most of them have walked away. More than you’d believe; more than I have the heart to admit. Maybe not the first time, but eventually. Strong people, godly people, people we know and love and trust and admire, they’ve stood in the same place that your friend stands now, seeing and feeling the same things as her, the pain and the doubt, and almost all of them, I think, if I’m not just being cynical… Most of them walk away, and don’t come back.

But some don’t. And hopefully somehow, perhaps through you, through some weakness in your eyes, if she can just catch a glimpse of the treasure we hold in jars of clay, a glimpse of what we see in Jesus’ face—maybe then she’ll understand, and remember again, while so many walk away, why those few don’t.

The Heart of a King

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That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!” Solomon replied, “…O Lord my God, you have made me king instead of my father David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am in the midst of your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted! Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?”

Solomon made a great request of God. Being wise is a good thing. We’re called to be wise stewards of the grace God has given us. I’ve heard the sermons about how we’re supposed to be “childlike”, but must avoid becoming “childish”—that we can’t be lazy, whiney, and foolish. And amen, I agree. I know we have to work hard. I know we have to serve faithfully. I know we have to make good plans. I know we have to learn effective methods. I know and I know we have to be smart, stable, realistic, decisive, progressive, efficient, organized, healthy, and mature. I know, I know. And I say amen. I know.

But… It’s interesting though, because I don’t know if David, were he in Solomon’s place, would have made the same request. Solomon wanted to be a good king and to rule well, to make sure he did everything right. But David, he was so unconcerned with how well he performed kingly duties. He didn’t need success, approval, or recognition. There was always only just one thing on his heart:

“Whom have I in heaven but You?
And earth has nothing I desire besides You.”

It was simple. Pure. God never asked David what he wanted, because maybe He didn’t need to. Perhaps for David, just to be in love was enough. Yes, Solomon might’ve been wise to avoid being childish, but David was truly childlike. He was in love. And that’s what made him, in his Father’s eyes, a king like no other.

 

“The man who loves God, is known by God.”


This is a repost from my previous blog, originally written on April 24, 2012. I wrote this when I was about two years into my first position as a youth pastor. God taught me a lot about what it means to love Him in my time there, at that little Temecula church in the middle of nowhere! Thankful for those times.


 

The past few weeks have been dark. So much frustration… So much hopelessness… So much wanting to give up. It’s the subtle grip of death. But then again, I’ve been here before. And more than that, I have a Friend who’s been here, too—and His grave is empty. Hahaha. So God reminded me again that what I need is a little faith, that the same power that conquered the grave lives in me, so I should walk like it. Where there’s death, faith always leads to life. It’s funny how faith never gets easy.

Driving to church, I was asking God, “Okay, what do we need to do? What do they need to hear?” I started picturing all my kids, seeing what they’re going through, how they’re struggling, slipping.  ”God, I’m losing them. They aren’t engaged at church, they aren’t praying enough, they aren’t reading the Bible enough, they aren’t seeking you passionately, they aren’t burning. Where is their fire, God? Why aren’t they desperately in love with You?” I was getting upset. “How can I fix them, God? How do I bring it back? How do I make them love You?”

My friend had left her ipod in my car, and I noticed that it had been playing music since I left the house. I turned up the volume. First there was some piano, and then Kari Jobe’s voice, singing, “So faithful… So constant…” I knew this song, from a long time ago. It brought back memories of my first love. “I know that You are for me…” And then my Father, kind and patient, knelt down from His throne to speak to me.

”Tell them I love them.”

It shook my soul. A fire flared up in my bones.

We had revival that day.

 

I drove home slowly, laughing to myself. How could I forget… haha. All the times I’d gone through this before with Him—times when I lost hope, when I could only see in the flesh; times when I lost faith, when I was drowning in fear; times when He held my hand anyways, when He showed me His power; times when He was faithful in my weakness; times when He kept His promises after I’d given up on them—the memories casually revisited my thoughts, like old friends with warm hearts. I sighed, happy. I was gazing at the mountains quietly passing by. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes just for a moment, and breathing out, I whispered, “I love You, Lord.” Right then, I felt His presence near to me. I said it again, “I love You, Lord.” I started crying, and I couldn’t stop. “I love You, Lord.”

I remembered something I wrote back in my junior year of high school on my blog:

I once heard that the words we lift toward God are so beautiful in His ears, that He would go to any length to hear them. He would silence the sounds of nature, hush the angels’ song, even quell the infinite ballad of the universe, just to hear your broken voice calling out to Him, your whispered prayer of desperation, the silent cries from your wounded soul… just to listen to a single word of love breathed through your lips.

And a million times I sing, “I love You, Lord.”

A famous worship leader told a story at a conference a while ago about his young son. Back when his son was still in the womb, this worship leader would put his face against his wife’s stomach and sing songs that he had written to his son. Then after he was born, when the boy would cry at night, he would go to him and again sing those songs as he fell back asleep. As his son grew older, still, the father would go to his room late at night while he was in bed, and he would sing over him, the very same songs. And then one day, while this father was in the kitchen, he heard something from across the house. As he got closer, he heard that it was his son. He was singing a song, one he had written for him. And his voice.. it sounded just like his father’s. The father stood outside the door and wept. In that moment, he understood worship. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.

My Father’s favorite song for me has always been His love. And as I told God I loved Him, I realized that everything that happened that day at church, everything I preached to them about the Father’s love—it wasn’t for them. It was for me. It was my Father, singing over me.

As I walked in faith, I heard His voice. And the voice of God wasn’t leading me to be a better pastor, or to have a better church, or to make better Christians out of my kids. It led me to one thing.

I love You, Lord. A million times.

Resurrection and Life

Sometimes living is really hard for me. Some days the best I can do to cope is just distract myself with random crap to make it through the day without choking on this vague sense of disappointment in my life, to just survive the emptiness. It’s that kind of day where it’s bluntly clear that there’s no soundtrack to your life, that the difficulties you’re in aren’t part of some process or journey to a bright and beautiful happy-ending. Things just suck, and that’s it. No one’s crying for you, get over yourself, you’re not that important. It’s not necessarily that I’m depressed, though that’s probably true… but I just don’t know anymore. Things are still moving, but nothings happening. I don’t feel pain, but I don’t feel alive. I feel stuck. I feel dead.

But I’m a really good Christian—a superChristian to be accurate. I’m extra spiritual. So I know I’m supposed to deal with it. I know I’m supposed to stay passionate, and I repeat the Christian phrases to myself, that there’s “meaning in the mundane,” that God “moves in mysterious ways,” and He’s “working behind the scenes.” I know I gotta keep going, because I’m mature and godly and faithful and steadfast and I WILL PERSEVERE!!! Wow, just, amen. I preach to myself whatever forced cliches I need to hear to deal with my circumstances, or rather my disappointment in them. God has a plan! He works all things for my good! This is not the end of the story! If He brought me in, He’ll take me through!!! My God my God, hallelujah Jesus… Things. Are. Going. To. Get. BETTER. YES! I just gotta keep going. I need to pray more. Hope more. Believe more. I’ll eventually get what I want, get where I want to be.   I guess.

There’s a story about a woman named Martha whose brother died. She was on her knees for days, asking and expecting Jesus to come heal him. He didn’t. She was disappointed… But she’s a good Christian like me, so she kept her head up. She’s read her bible, so she knows that eventually, one day in the future God is going to come back and make everything good, and all God’s people are going to come back to life and have the best resurrection party. Everyone knew this—it was a promise from God. They were all waiting for it, hoping for it. So she knew: she shouldn’t complain and just keep on going, standing strong, waiting for the better things to come. I trust the Lord! God made a promise, to never leave me nor forsake me! Things suck now, but I know God’s going to fix this and give me everything I need! My brother is dead, but I know later I’ll be with him again! Everything will be good then, and I’ll finally be truly happy!

Jesus shows up, and Martha gives Him her grown-up superChristian response, letting Him know that she’s going to keep looking forward and going strong, waiting for the coming blessings. But Jesus doesn’t congratulate her. Maybe I’m crazy but it feels like He rebukes her… He says to her, Martha. I am the resurrection. I am the life.

I hear these words of Jesus, and I feel Him asking me, What are you so looking forward to? Is there something more you’re looking for, something more you need to finally find life? Am I not enough? I’m the promise. I’m what you’ve been waiting for. It’s Me.

“Resurrection” isn’t a promise to change your circumstances and make things better. Resurrection is finding life in Him. It isn’t a successful career. It isn’t fruitfulness in ministry. It isn’t the church you always wanted. It isn’t marrying your sweetheart. It isn’t family reconciliation. It isn’t new friends who truly love you. It isn’t spiritual breakthrough. Your happy-ending isn’t any of those things. It’s Jesus… It’s only Jesus. Resurrection is finally filling that emptiness in life, that deadness in your soul, and Jesus is saying, It’s Me. It’s only Me. It was always Me, and it will only ever be Me. I am the Life. I am the Resurrection.

And on days like these, I lie in my bed, and the Lord helps me pray, God… You can take my friends, You can take my family, You can take my ministry, You can take my reputation, You can take my name, You can strip me of all purpose and passion, snatch away everything I’ve ever dreamed of or looked forward to, leave me naked on the street… God, You can take my happy-ending. But Father, just give me Yourself.

 

I know that in the story, Jesus says He’s going to bring Martha’s brother back to life, and He does. God always does good things, He always will. He’s a good God, a good Father, the Father of lights. He actually does change our circumstances, bear fruit in our lives, take us higher and deeper than before. He loves to bless. But blessings come and go. Things get bad. Life sucks. You eventually fall into one of those days. Maybe you’ll feel like you’re dying, or maybe you literally are—but even in death, they can’t take your life, because where there’s joy, there’s life. And our joy is everlasting, because it was never really in the blessings.

The Way Home


This is a repost from my previous blog, originally written on July 2, 2013. I’m thankful to revisit this blog today. It was my reflection during a time of big transition in life. I’m in the middle of a new life transition again, but God’s reminding me that it’s just a part of a story He began a long time ago. I feel hopeful as I remember that although things have changed, I still know where I’m going.


 

During our mission trip to Bolivia and Argentina, we had a chance to stop by Iguazu Falls. In a strange way, witnessing Iguazu Falls was the culmination of everything I’ve been learning in the past year or so. At the end of the walkway through the jungle, I leaned against the railing hanging over a cliff to look at the waterfall. I had this sublime experience.. It seized me slowly, a heavy quietness, and I couldn’t blink or breathe. I lost myself for a moment. I felt like a hollow vessel, an instrument, and the waters’ roars boomed through my chest and rang in my bones. I was enraptured. It felt like worship.

A stream of words rushed through my mind while I stood there—words, and all their emotional baggage, with all the feelings and memories and moments of insight tied to each of them: glory, awe, power, surrender, worship, love. Each thought burst open and lit brightly like points on a constellation, gradually drawing together as if to reveal some grand design, a higher understanding. I felt myself rising, transcending.

But then, it dwindled… And then it dispersed in a puff, like a clap of dust. The moment was gone. The quiet let go of me, and I stood there sober. All that was left was a whole crap load of water, falling. I rejoined my team to take a bunch of touristy group pictures, and then we turned back through the jungle. Walking back, in between the laughter and the small talk, I think I could hear God saying something to me.

In January of 2009, I left the Bay and drove to SoCal to start a new chapter in my life—being a student at Biola, helping Will at Calvary Hosanna, becoming a youth pastor in Temecula, etc. These past few years were filled with so many beautiful, amazing, and painful things, memories I don’t know how to tell. But walking away from Iguazu, the words God spoke to me to bring this long and beautiful season of my life to an end were so simple: “Come home.” Haha. Simple. Anti-climactic, even. No profound insight, no divine epiphany, no drama or show. Just a gentle reminder that He’s still holding my hand, still walking with me, always leading me back to Him. I can’t help but think that there in front of Iguazu, God had brought me thousands of miles across the world, into the jungle, just so I could remember that there’s only one thing my heart will ever be looking for: my first true Love, my closest Companion and most faithful Friend. That really, at the end of the day, all I want is to be at home, with Him.

I guess this is how real-life stories end their chapters: not with a perfect climax or illuminating resolution, but with a funny feeling that things aren’t finished, that tomorrow’s still coming, and there’s a long way to go. But at the same time, you feel good. You lay down in bed at night, and you’re tired, but happy. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a “happily ever after” for us in this life, but if there is, I think it’s lived in normal days after work, after the game, after the exam, after the party, after the big event, after the mission trip, in that sobering moment when you go to wash up for bed and take a steady look in the mirror, or in the quiet rhythm looking out your car window on your long drive home. Thank you, Father… And you ease out a deep sigh, content.

I moved back to the Bay this week, but I don’t feel like I’ve come back home. Being back in my old neighborhood and working for my old church feels different and new. It feels more just like the start of another story, another stop on the way there, to home. I wrote down a quote some time ago, and at the time I didn’t really understand what it meant… It just sounded nice haha. I can’t even remember where it’s from. But it’s beginning to make sense to me now:

“Only those on journeys will see the dim paths that lead the way home.”

 

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest…”
Then Moses said, “Now show me Your glory.”
-Exodus 33:14-18

Searching for the Present


This is a repost from my previous blog, written on October 1, 2012. In the past few years, the power of narrative has been shaping the way I understand the human experience. This blog was an expression of my personal pain, but I believe it touches on our deep need for meaning, for significance, and to find ourselves in our own story. It’s a part, I think, of God’s unique mark on man and the inherent longing we have for the eternal.


 

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.
    -Robert Frost

I remember a time in 2nd grade when I was an Indian. My neighbor and I would hunt wild buffalo in the living room with our bows and arrows. My bow was plastic and blue, and my arrows were yellow and soft. His younger sister was my wife. She was blonde with green eyes and not very pretty, but she was the most beautiful woman in the land. We lived in a hut under the dining room table. She cooked meals for us at home. The food was invisible, and delicious. It was play, but it was vivid and vibrant. We were at the center of our lives, the main characters in the story, living in the fullness of it, the present.

It wasn’t a fantasy, off in the far past or in the distant future, but rather an immediate, living reality—life, in the pure present. I know in many ways it was just a game, but how do I explain what was really there? The world was real. It was a place that hummed with life and glowed with significance, as if at any moment anything could happen, and it would matter.  It was our world; it belonged to us and we belonged there. We filled it with life. It lived for us; its heart beat for us.

And then my parents came home. The game was up. My friends left, back to their house next door. Adults came over, and they discussed important things that I couldn’t understand. I was just a kid, playing, in the way. I took a nap and escaped back to my world, my reality, where I fought aliens to save the world and discovered new lands with hidden treasures waiting to be found, where I was lost in just the right places in the middle of deserts and jungles and castles, where I was friends with heroes and legends, beggars and kings. The world was limitless, yet it was always within reach. All time was concentrated into living moments, a perpetual and unbroken present space and time, moving life forward.

I woke up and my room was dark, and my bed hid in the shadow of the door cracked open. I peeked through the crevice of light coming through. The adults were laughing—not with grace and warmth, but with arrogance, like self-indulged teenagers. It was clear to me that whatever they were doing and saying was vastly more important than me, their matters more real than mine. They had taken center stage, shoving my world into the periphery of significance, at once dispelling my reality and stripping me of the ability to find it again. I no longer inhabited the present. Real time, the time of the living present, was somewhere else, apart from me, happening without me and with no concern for me. I was disturbed. I felt separated from myself, dislodged, dislocated. My present had betrayed me. I hid in my bed, exposed like a fool without an audience. I prayed for a spell to enchant me, for some magic to bring me back in.

From that moment time began to fracture more and more, gradually rather than suddenly, in small things quickly forgotten. It happened again in a friend’s tree house, where we swore we’d stay forever and live freely, away from school and parents—until, of course, it got too cold and we got hungry and bored. I wasn’t even that close to him; I just wanted it to be real. It happened again in middle school when across the gym I saw the cool kids, boys talking to girls and girls giggling. I joined them, but saw that it was just a game, that what I came for wasn’t there, or that I had perhaps just missed it. It happened with a close friend, a girl who drew me with her beauty. I searched her heart, and found it wasn’t there either. I emerged to find her beauty faded and her glimmer dulled. She had lost it. She wasn’t who I thought, or at least not what I wanted anymore. It happened in my room a few years ago, in the night, as I laid alone. Everyone else in the world was sleeping, waiting with purpose for the morning. They all seemed to have it without even knowing it. And then, it happened again a few months ago. And again, a few days ago. And again today. It happens every time I see a sunset, an ocean, a cloudy sky, or a mountain range; every time I look at old pictures with my family or reminisce with friends about our childhood; every time I watch a good movie, eat a good meal, come home late, or take a shower early in the morning; and it happens every time I wake up from a nap.

I swear, sometimes I can almost see it in those things. I can smell its scent in a good book, recall its taste and feel in a somber song, but I can’t find it, the place I need to be, that present. I can’t grasp it and live in it again, let it fill me. Yet it grazes me in my memories, passes by like a familiar stranger, like a friend I’d forgotten or a lover I wish I’d known. People tell me it’s called nostalgia. They say it’s normal, that I just need to get used to it and move on. But I swear, the nostalgia calls me, beckons toward something else, something real that luminates from the edges of memories, murmurs through their cracks and between their lines. It’s the wistfulness of a hug goodbye. It’s what the widow sees in a dusty portrait of her lost love. It’s the echo in your foggy gaze watching a cartoon you enjoyed as a child, and in your half-smile playing with your old favorite toy. It’s the pain at the end of every story, that sober moment after, and the endless days to come. It’s a soundless music, an unknowable beauty, an awful mystery hiding in our very midst, on the tip of our tongue, right beneath our noses, looming over us and pressed against our chest: the living moment, the present.

 

For now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
-1 Corinthians 13:12

Meanwhile, we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked.
-2 Corinthians 5:2-3

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.
-1 Peter 1:3-4

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
-Psalm 63:1-5

“Where, except in the present, can the eternal be met?”
C. S. LewisChristian Reflections

To Know a Thing Rightly


This is a repost from my previous blog, originally written on May 21, 2013.  In this blog, I address the nature of true understanding. Today, there’s so much stuff happening all the time that our thoughts have gotten used to just skimming information. It’s hard to find time to really see something, to understand a topic, issue, or person deeply. We need to be careful, because sometimes, a superficial “knowing” can fool you into thinking you at least know partially, when really you don’t get it at all—you’re completely wrong, and don’t even know it. Sometimes, shallow understanding is actually tragic misunderstanding.


There’s a certain power you feel in having a thing “figured out”.

A long time ago, noble men sailed to a far-off, undiscovered land and found a tribal people who danced around a fire wearing masks and chanting. These noble men came to learn that these tribesmen believed they could invoke the sky gods through rituals to bring the rain down from the clouds. The noble men now knew why the tribesmen danced around the fire; they had these people figured out. Then, they decimated their society and enslaved them, judging them to be an inferior species.

 

We all have an innate longing to be understood. But just figuring something out does not mean you understand it. True understanding ends in appreciation, admiration, adoration, and awe. To be “figured out” is to be conquered, to be controlled, like the way you solve a math problem or a puzzle. To know a thing rightly is to love and to liberate, to embrace its greatness and breathe life unto its potential. To think you’ve figured a person out may feed your instinctual need for control and power, but you’ll never really understand them, never truly know them.. not as you ought to.

“If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.”
-Paul the Apostle

I don’t care if you have a PhD in Literature; you haven’t read a book until you’ve been caught up in its story, fallen in love with its heroes, hated its villains, and been so enchanted by its world that even though it’s fiction, it’s still true to you. I don’t care if you’re the next Mozart, you haven’t listened to a song until you’ve been melted by it, hypnotized, drawn into its dream.

For the same reasons, even brilliant scholars will never understand the Bible unless they come as a child. To a scholar, Jesus is a first-century Jewish teacher, a worker of miracles, a healer, a prophet, a priest, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Servant of Isaiah, the heir of David, the risen King, the true Israel, Abraham’s promise, the new Adam, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Yes, yes, and amen. But, to a child, He’s amazing. That’s what takes knowledge and kindles it to intimacy. God is known most rightly not in precise theology or calculated scrutiny, but in mind-blown soul-shook wonder, when you’re on your knees, enraptured by the mystery of His holiness and beauty. You can spend eternity figuring God out, but you’ll never know Him without love.

You might know a lot about me—my habits, my hobbies, my personality type, my history, my scars, my fears, my dreams, my favorite food, and favorite color—and actually, you’ll know me pretty well hahaha. But not really, not rightly… Not quite as you ought to. Not until you’ve been angry at me, frustrated with my flaws, confused by actions, inspired by my thoughts, moved by my heart, surprised by my strength, and awed by my greatness. I want to be understood, not dissected. I don’t want to be figured out, I want to be loved.

 

A magician on his deathbed confessed that the kids will always know his magic tricks better than he ever did. Because while he was the one who performed the tricks and knew all their intricate mechanics, only children could still marvel at them. Magic is best understood not in mastery, but in awe. Human beings are much the same.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”
-Roald Dahl