Embracing Awkward

  • Holy Saturday and My (and Your) Depression

    When I became a Christian I was sure I would never be depressed again. How could someone who knows the love and joy of Jesus be so sad that getting out of bed seems like a feat of enormous strength? Sure, I had been so depressed in my middle school years, but that was all going to change now. There’s no room for crippling depression in life with the Risen Jesus. Or so I thought, before two devastating bouts of depression upended my life like a sequence of punches from Mike Tyson, the first in college, and the second in my third year of ministry. 

    If you’ve never personally struggled with depression, it’s hard, and exhausting, and risky to try to describe. David Foster Wallace once likened it to an extremely painful disease that attacks your legs and throat simultaneously, causing both complete paralysis and an ability to cry for help. He called it, “The Bad Thing,” and said, “This is the way the Bad Thing works: it’s especially good at attacking your defense mechanisms. The way to fight against or get away from the Bad Thing is clearly just to think differently, to reason and argue with yourself. Just to change the way you’re perceiving and sensing and processing stuff. But you need your mind to do this, your brain cells with their atoms and your mental powers and all that, your self. And that’s exactly what the Bad Thing has made too sick to work right.” It makes me think of how one of my friends describes it as like having a bully living inside you, constantly reminding you of what a loser you are. 

    Years ago (in 1947 to be exact) Robert Penn Warren described it like this in All the King’s Men: “[Jack Burden] laid aside the great journal and entered upon one of the periods of the Great Sleep. He would come home in the evening, and because he knew that he could not work he would go to bed immediately. He would sleep twelve hours, fourteen hours, fifteen hours, feeling himself, while asleep, plunge deeper and deeper into sleep like a diver groping downward into dark water feeling for something which may be there and which would glitter if there were any light in the depth, but there isn’t any light. Then in the morning he would lie in bed, not wanting anything, not even hungry, hearing the small sounds of the world sneaking and seeping back into the room, under the door, through the glass, through the cracks in the wall, through the very pores of the wood and plaster. Then he would think: If I don’t get up I can’t go back to bed. And he would get up and go out into the world which seemed very unfamiliar, but with a tantalizing unfamiliarity like the world of boyhood to which an old man returns.” When I first read that last spring I felt I finally understood my depressed self in college, who I judged as being incredibly lazy, without understanding that this is how depression works. I have so much more compassion for him now. 

    We could keep going. Jeffrey Eugenides describes it like having “a bruise in your mind.” Sometimes you know how it got there; sometimes you genuinely have no clue. Charles Spurgeon described it as a “shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.” William Cowper wrote about his own struggle with it, “I was struck with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same, can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.” This is just a taste of what living with depression feels like. Sprinkle that dark appetizer with some good old fashioned shame, and you have a better taste of what it’s like for a Christian to live with depression. 

    In that second devastating bout with depression I mentioned (my third year of ministry), I remember going to see a local counselor about it. He was what you would call a biblical counselor, and genuinely believed that most common psychological struggles had a biblical solution. One day we were meeting at Ruby Tuesday for a session (spoiler alert: Ruby Tuesday only leaves you more depressed), and, as I was trying to describe my depression, I will never forget what he told me. After a bite of the saddest burger in the world, he said, “The good news is that because the cause of depression is sin, it means the cure for it is repentance, which is hopeful because all you need to do is repent.” It was like one of Job’s counselors had teleported and was sitting with me at Ruby Tuesday, eating a sad burger, adding the weight of shame to the already heavy load of depression. 

    It’s taken me a lot of good counseling to know better. To know that depression is more complicated than that. To know it has spiritual, emotional, and physical roots. To know that it seems to be passed down through generations of families, like an heirloom you can’t seem to get rid of. To know that medicine can be amazingly helpful. To know that the gospel indeed speaks to it, yet doesn’t cure it. To know that sometimes the Lord, for reasons known only to Him, asks us to learn to entrust lifelong, unwanted struggles to Him. To know that the Lord is gentle with bruised reeds, and refuses to join me in condemning myself. To know that one day my depression will cease, when all the tears get wiped from our faces, and we enter fully into the presence and likeness of our Risen Savior. But not yet. Not yet. I’ve always loved the way David Murray says it: “Christians get depressed, too.” 

    It’s Holy Saturday and I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means for my depression. Holy Saturday feels like the most overlooked of Holy Days, sandwiched between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And yet it is so important. It’s the day that says God’s silence doesn’t equal his absence. It’s the day that says there is room, so much room, for our lingering doubt, confusion, struggle, and despair. It’s an uncomfortable day. Our Lord is lying in a caved tomb. We know the darkness will not overcome him. But sometimes it’s just good to know that he knows what our darkness is like. 

    It makes me think of the closing scene in Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. Asher has grown tremendously as an artist, and is hosting his parents to his first show. He wants to show them a piece of art that he is afraid will offend them, but yet it is so important to him. Though growing up a devout Jew, he has been drawn to Jesus and is terrified of how his parents might respond.  The struggle of his life has been watching his depressed mother live a life of tremendous suffering. Asher brings them to the masterpiece, “Mama, it's a crucifixion. I made our living-room window into a crucifix and I put you on it to show the world about your waiting, your fears, your anguish. Do you understand, Mama?” 

    Asher, like us, was looking for someone who could bear the weight of his sadness, who could hold the sadness of his mother. He found the dying Jesus. He is the only God who knows what to do with our tears. The good news of Holy Saturday is that the Lord does not break bruised reeds because He knows what it is to be one. Holy Saturday is a day we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our depression, which often feels too much for us to take, will never be too much for Him. 

  • The Shadows of Suffering

    There are moments as a parent that make you laugh. And there are moments as a parent that make you cry. The latter happened when our youngest daughter was trying to put a clip in her hair and felt a strange tube on her head instead. What she felt was a shunt that has been there since she was 3 months old. She asked my wife what it was, and we suddenly realized we didn't really know what to tell her.

    And it made us sad. Really sad. Her shunt is a sign that things are not as they should be.

    The truth is the shunt saved her life. Literally. She has a rare condition called “Dandy-Walker” that can often cause hydrocephalus, excess fluid on the brain. A shunt helps drain this excess fluid from the brain down into the abdominal cavity. Our daughter will have one all her life to help her function like a normal, healthy, happy person. Modern medicine is a beautiful thing for which we are thankful. 

    Her shunt is also a reminder that there is one thing you can't protect your kids from: suffering. They are born into this world and you hope so many things for them. Deep friendships. Happy marriages. Satisfying careers. Love for Jesus and his people. 

    You work your hardest to give them the good and protect them from the bad. They are under your care for a short season before you send them wide-eyed into this world. 

    But as hard as you try, you can’t protect them from the suffering they will inevitably experience by virtue of being broken people living in a broken world.

    All you can do is hope to teach them how to suffer well. To suffer knowing that somehow God knows best, does good, works good, IS good, both in and through the suffering. And that in those moments when you cannot seem to trace his hand, you can still trust his heart (Spurgeon). 

    Our hope in life isn’t that we won’t suffer. We will. Our hope is that all of our suffering, and all of our children’s suffering, is in the shadow of the suffering of Jesus. He suffered for us in order that he might suffer with us. And that all our suffering would somehow make us more like him.

    This is better news than “Footprints,” because it means he’s doing something loving and good even in those places where it seems he’s dragging us through the sand. 

    Marilynne Robinson puts it best: “That is how life goes--we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord's.”

    Our hope for our kids isn't to protect them from suffering. We can't. Our hope is that we may point them to the one who helps make sense of their suffering because he is so familiar with it. And in finding him they may also find the healing his wounds alone can provide.

  • 6 Ways to Fight the Idol of Approval

    For a lot of us the struggle is real. We're slaves to what others think of us. It's why my mouth does that thing when I go to say "No" where it says "Yes" instead. Jesus is my Savior. Yes and amen. But too often I live as if approval were my Lord. What's a chronic people pleaser to do? Here are 6 ways I'm still learning to fight the idol of approval:

    1. You can't know what others think, but you can know what Jesus thinks.

    The cruelty of approval is that you can't ever really know what others think of you. But one look at the cross and you can be sure what Jesus thinks of you. He literally loves you to death. When talking about approval, my dad likes to say: "What you think of me is none of my business." Making what Jesus thinks of you "your business" is key. 

    2. The pursuit of coolness and the practice of kindness are mutually exclusive.

    Being a people pleaser means even when I'm doing something nice for you, it's really about me. Which is shorthand for saying, "I want you to like me and think I'm cool." The way out of this is dying to what you think of me so I can begin to be kind to you in the ways Jesus has been kind to me. Because Christians have died with Christ to being cool, we're free in him to begin to be kind. The pursuit of coolnees feeds our approval idol, but the practice of kindness starves it. 

    3. Being yourself is better than being a cover band of someone else.

    A few years ago I braved a dive bar to see a Led Zeppelin cover band called Zoso. They were amazing and the next best thing to Led Zeppelin. But they also made me sad because they have adopted the persona of someone else down to the long curly hair and tight leather pants (which should be illegal unless you've been on the cover of Rolling Stone). The world has missed out on the unique music that only they could have made, even if it wasn't appreciated beyond their cat lady aunts and favorite high school teachers. No one wants you to be a cover band of someone else. They want you to be yourself, in all of your shame and glory. 

    4. Before you can ever be yourself, you have to actually like yourself.

    Sadly most of us could agree with Dave Matthews (right now people with Jeeps are nodding extra hard), "I wish I had been anyone other than me." A guy in my high school actually chose that for his senior quote, because he disliked himself so much. The way out of hating yourself isn't being someone else. It's beginning to be who God made you to be. It's like that scene in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lector escapes from prison by cutting off the guard's face and wearing it on top of his own. As gross as it is, it's also exactly what we do when we try to be somebody else. The only way out of the prison of people pleasing is to take off the skin of others and get comfortable in your own. Before you can ever be yourself, you have to actually like yourself. Do you realize that God made, chose, redeemed, adopted, called and sent YOU? 

    5. Live from your identity, not for it.

    Maybe it's better to make the distinction between identity and image. Identity is something given, fundamental to the way you see yourself. Image, on the other hand, is something you create, and is fundamentally about the way you want others to see you. The sin of our age is to live for our image instead of from our identity. Which is why Vaughan Roberts wisely warns us that "wholehearted commitment to Christ will not be good for our image." But we have something better than an image. We have an identity in Christ that nothing and no one can touch. It includes words like "sons," "daughters," "servants," and "heirs." In the words of Aslan, “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve...And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.” You don't have to be someone when you already ARE someone.

    6. Resign yourself to the awkwardness of life.

    This is my new favorite line (mainly because my spiritual gift is making things awkward). It's from the Before (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) movie trilogy. From beginning to end, life is awkward. Life isn't as it should be and neither are we. Let's not pretend life isn't hard, or that any of us has it all together. Let's admit to ourselves (and one another) that we're broken and can't fix ourselves. Resigning yourself to the awkwardness of life means being vulnerable about all your weakness and weirdness. Awkwardness is an invitation to vulnerability. And vulnerability is where friendship is born. It's also where God becomes big. And not until He becomes big will people become just the right size: big enough to matter, small enough to not be enslaved to what they think.

    Sammy Rhodes is the RUF campus minister at The University of South Carolina. He also recently authored his first book, This Is Awkward, available for purchase here, as well as in most major bookstores. 

  • This Is Awkward

    For the longest time I always hated it when someone told me they were “working on a book.” Whenever someone mentioned their book it felt like a not-so-subtle way of saying, “See, I really am better than you. I mean, like, objectively.” It made me want to not just roll my eyes, but tumble them down a steep hill. The question that screamed in my mind was, “WHO are YOU to write a book?”

    I feel differently now. Mainly because I wrote a book. And believe me, as the handful of people I told I was writing it can attest to, talking about your book is hard. It’s like opening the dam to let the rivers of awkwardness flow. The question I used to dread most was “So what are your hobbies?” (Does having a bucket list of dream food combinations, like a Chick-fil-A filet but on a Bojangles biscuit, count as a hobby?) It’s now been topped by, “So what is your book about?” The irony of this uncomfortable question is that it’s precisely what the book is about, how awkwardness isn’t a threat but a gift. 

    One of the saddest realities of life is that the things we need to talk about the most, we tend to talk about the least. From our deepest bouts with depression, to our long struggles with sexual brokenness, to the parent wounds that never quite seem to heal. It’s scary to pull back the curtains on your places of pain because admitting that you’re broken isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s so hard to share those parts of yourself, yet those are actually the parts that connect us, that make us human. 

    Awkwardness is an invitation. It’s an invitation to be human; to admit that you don’t have it all together, or have it all figured out. It’s an invitation to be vulnerable. Vulnerable about the wounds you carry. Vulnerable about the struggles you face. And vulnerability is where friendship and connection are born. It’s the place where intimacy lives and thrives. 

    As hard as it will be for me to muster all my introvert strength to talk about my book (still feels weird) until it comes out on March 1st, I’m going to do it. Not because I think I’m super important, but because I think what we’re talking about is. I can’t wait for you to read it (you can preorder it here) so that you can join me in beginning to talk about the parts of your own story that have been too hard, too awkward, to talk about. 

    Those are the places we need you to share so that the rest of us fellow strugglers can know that grace is true and hope is real. Those are the places that remind us that you are just as human as the rest of us, and that all humans are awkward, and that awkward people are the only people God loves because they’re the only people that there are.

    This book is an invitation for you to open up about the gap between what you should be and what you are and find out that is exactly where God meets you and loves you. 

    I’ll be sharing some more fun things about the book in the coming months. My marketing team at the publishing house even tells me we’re going to give away some cool stuff. Can’t. Wait. 

    Vulnerability is hard. But grace is true. So let’s make some awkward. 

    Side hugs,


    P.S.- Here’s the book cover. Hope you dig it.

  • The Normal Christian Life

    Baseball was not my sport, but from 1986-1992 I tried. My last year was particularly memorable because I was our starting pitcher that season. If you’ve ever seen a toddler throw a toy in anger then you’ve seen me pitch. There was more walking going on than a mall full of senior citizens. 

    The other thing memorable about that year was a teammate named Michael. All Michael wanted to do that season was hit a home run. The problem was that every time he stepped to the plate be did the exact same thing. He would grip his bat, close his eyes, and swing as hard as he could for the fences. Michael struck out every at bat that season. 

    Whenever I think about the way a lot of us approach the Christian life, I think about Michael. Like him, we are drawn to the visibly dramatic, heroic even. Whether in private, waiting for our time in Scripture and prayer to reach the sudden euphoric heights of a dubstep remix, or in public, wanting to be known as the one (read The One) who's a little more important, a little more gifted, than your average Christian. We swing hard for the fences. Our motives are mixed. 

    The problem is that the normal Christian life feels much more like showing up and trying to get your bat on the ball than hitting a home run. It’s more about hanging in there and making contact. Keeping your eye on the ball. Remembering that it’s a long game, so you’ll need patience. 

    To change metaphors, the normal christian life is less exclamation points, more commas and semicolons. A friend of mine, Tom Cannon, likes to say if he could make one Christian bumper sticker, it would be this: “Perseverance beats zeal every time.” 

    In terms of our relationship with God, this means that hearing from Him happens less in the dramatic display of earthquakes and fires, more in the undramatic still small voices of the means of his grace. Tending to them with a settled disposition, both alone in the quiet of some sacredly familiar place, and especially together in the quirkiness and quaintness that is God’s people, the church. 

    In terms of our relationship with others, this means that perhaps it’s better be known as the person who shares Christ less in the form of being single handedly responsible for copious amounts of conversions, more in the form of being known as an incredible listener. As Eugene Peterson provocatively writes, The question I put to myself is not “How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?”

    In terms of our relationship with ourselves, this means that we begin to be as patient toward our own growth (or lack thereof) as Christ is. There isn’t a parent alive who looks at the stumbling efforts of their children as they learn to walk and thinks, “Get it together!” Instead there is much joy in the stumbling, because the stumbling expresses the desire to walk. And there is much patience in the stumbling, because all there is to do when they fall is to help them up again. And again. And again. Do I realize that's how God looks at me?

    The reason this is a big deal is our view of the normal Christian life is currently dominated by a culture of celebrity pastors, authors, and speakers. I’m thankful for these men, and for their conferences. So many have helped me grow as a Christian.

    But the worst thing to be in a world of celebrities is normal. So we learn to despise the ordinary, both in terms of how we serve Christ, and in terms of what following him looks like. 

    No one understood this better than William Still. He was a pastor in Scotland in the late 20th century, and his story is an interesting one. Like Jesus, at first he drew a huge crowd, so big the papers wrote stories about him.

    But then, like Jesus, the crowds went away. Because the words he was saying, Jesus’ words, were simultaneously too hard and too boring. 

    Still once wrote to fellow pastors: “Your quiet persistence – this charge, or parish, or living is not a mere stepping-stone to a better appointment: God has caused you to become pastor to some souls here who are as valuable to Him as any in the world – your quiet persistence will be a sign that you believe God has a purpose of grace for this people, and that this purpose of grace will be promoted, not by gimmicks, or stunts, or new ideas, but by the Word of God released in preaching by prayer.” 

    Your quiet persistence.” That’s what makes us uncomfortable. Noticeable. Immediate. Those are the words that drive us more than we’d like to admit. But Jesus seems determined to make us like himself. Driven far more by the the small acts of healing grace that go unnoticed by the crowds. The quiet withdrawal to places where he could talk to the Father who loved him. The settled commitment of being with God’s people no matter how messy. He’s at both more mundane and more mystical than we want him to be. 

    Spiritually speaking, we’re all Barry Bonds. We want awesomeness more than we want faithfulness. But the Lord is making us into Cal Ripkens. Teaching us that it’s more about showing up than showing off. Showing up with the hope of the gospel, day in and day out

    Like Lady Gaga, we live for the applause. And when he is finished with us, we will still live for the applause. But it will be a different kind of applause: the applause of heaven. The bad news is it’s barely audible except to those who strain to listen. The good news is it’s the only applause that lasts forever.

  • Missing Out on God's Best

    Deep within the human heart is a quiet voice that constantly asks, “Does God really love me?” It’s the same question that was planted years ago by the serpent into the soil of the hearts of our first parents in the garden. Can I really trust Him? And as the serpent slithered away, the deadly blow was already delivered with the poison of our mistrust of God. 

    This doesn’t go away when you become a Christian, by the way. It just shifts. I might trust God with my salvation, but when it comes to my life, I still feel like I’m being slighted; cheated even. Missing out on something I deserve. 

    For some of us this takes the form of wishing we weren’t single, and the temptation to believe that life will really begin once we’re married. 

    For others of us it takes the form of childlessness, and thinking that life will be so much happier, so much fuller, once we have kids.

    Still for others of us it takes the form of daydreaming about no longer being married. The person we married isn’t what we thought they were, and we want out. 

    At the heart of all of these temptations is a deeper temptation. The one that says God doesn’t really know what he’s doing with my life. Besides, if he really loved me he would give me what I want. Somehow, some way, I am missing out on God’s best for me. Why is God holding out on me? Does He really love me?

    My family and I recently got back from a cross country trip to LA, and in the name of preserving our sanity, we gave our kids a bundle of Apple products to play with on the trip. My old iPhone became my son's obsession (Nothing makes you feel like a better parent than being at the Grand Canyon and all your 7yr old can talk about is how much he needs to charge his iPhone). To the point where as soon as we got home, we had to take it away and hide it from him. Because we love him, we took the phone away, before it destroyed his ability to enjoy anything else.

    The sad part is that my son has something better than my old iPhone. He has me. He’s my son, I’m his dad. And even though I fall short in so many ways, our relationship is worth so much more than an old iPhone. I’m the one who even made it possible for him to have an iPhone in the first place. 

    Sadly I often see myself in him. David Foster Wallace once said that he never let go of anything in his life without it having his claw marks on it. Amen. I have a tendency to mistake the gifts of God for God, to love the blessings of God more than God. And the things I want from Him slowly begin to crowd him out of my life and more importantly, my heart. 

    It seems like this has always been Satan’s design, for God’s people to mistake his gifts for Him, to love his blessings more than the blessing of loving and being loved by Him. And the fear of somehow missing out on God's best if we aren't careful or faithful enough.

    The reality is we can never miss out on God's best because he’s already given us his best in Jesus. For as much as we’ve proved over and over that we would prefer almost anything to God, it almost seems God loves us more than he loves himself. As much selfishness as there is in us, there isn’t an ounce in him. 

    In our idolatry we’ve substituted many things for Jesus. In his love He substituted Himself for us.

    Octavius Winslow once reflected on this and wrote: “Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy; but the Father, for love!”  

    The only remedy to the poison of doubting the love of God is the balm of the cross which says, "Even when you were at your worst, God loved you at his best."

  • Don't Compare Your Deep Cuts to Another Person's Greatest Hits

    Insecurity is something that comes easy to a lot of us. For example, next week I will drive to Atlanta to spend a week with a hundred of my peers and my head will be spinning with anxiety all week.

    The workout crowd will make me feel like I should apply for next season's Biggest Loser.

    The intellectual crowd will make me feel like I read all the wrong books.

    The cool crowd will make me feel like I own all the wrong shoes.

    The problem isn't them, it's me. More specifically it's my heart. Instead of finding the contentment that come from belonging to Christ, my heart looks for it's contentment elsewhere. Belonging to a certain crowd. Being "in" with a certain group of people.

    CS Lewis wrote about this desire to be an insider in one if his most helpful essays, "The Inner Ring." He wrote: "As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion; if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain...The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it."

    Discontentment comes from the self-love that leads to self-comparison and ultimately self-hatred for never quite measuring up or fitting in.

    Contentment, on the other hand, comes from being loved by Christ, therefore enough, and right where you should be.

    Discontentment, in the words of Anne Lamott, comes from comparing your insides to another person's outsides. Forgetting that beneath apparent confidence is deep insecurity, and that beneath insecurity is the insidious pride of having to be somebody.

    Contentment comes from not comparing your deep cuts to another person's greatest hits. Remembering that everyone is carrying a heavy burden, even if their pictures on Facebook say differently.

    The question I often have to pose to my own heart is this: Is Christ enough for me?

    In those rare moments that He is, that is when my heart is free to swim in the waters of contentment, instead of drown in the waters of comparison.

  • The Crippling Power of Should

    Today marks the start of the last week of our vacation and instead of embracing the new day with a smile and a hug my mind went different places.

    "I should have gotten up earlier. I'm 34 and shouldn't still struggle with sleeping in."

    "I should have gone for a jog this morning. It's my third day in a row without exercise. I'm well on my way (back) to being the real version of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby."

    "I shouldn't have said that in that text I sent last night. It probably offended them and now I'm on their "smile then roll your eyes when they turn away" list."

    "My friends' kids are becoming Christians and I barely know how to talk with mine in a genuine way about Jesus. I should be a better spiritual leader."

    One of my friends calls this "Shoulding all over yourself." Living in a state where you try to shame your way into being what you (read others) think you should be.

    The problem is it doesn't work. No one ever shamed themselves into being a better version of themselves. Because shame might be a powerful voice, but it's never a powerful motivator. That's why one of my counselors likes to correct me every time I use the word should. She stops and says, "Get to."

    You get to wake up and embrace the day in a way that helps you savor it.

    You get to care for your body in ways that make you feel better and full of more energy.

    You get to be your awkward self with friends and then repent and apologize when you need to.

    You get to engage your kids out of what you know and have learned about Jesus.

    And when you fail, you get another opportunity to try again. And another. And another. Grace works that way. Because Jesus took all the shoulds, that for you there would only be get to's. The perfection of his performance on your behalf, both in living the life you should have lived, and dying the death you should have died, covers the imperfection of the life you are struggling to live.

    So the next time you go to shame yourself with shoulds (let's be real, probably later today), stop and remember, in the words of John Newton, Jesus doesn't shame you out of your sins. He loves you out of your sins. Let that love transform your shoulds into get to's.

  • Flannery O'Connor and the Bigness of God

    Last night I couldn't sleep so naturally I turned to my iPhone. As I swiped through apps, looking for somewhere to rest my mind, I nestled up to my Kindle app, specifically Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. I've been working my way through them for almost a year now.

    Few writers combine wit, depth, insight and to the point-ness, like Flannery O'Connor. And last night I almost sat straight up in bed (technically three sofa cushions laid on a basement floor. Long story) as I read the following line from an undated letter to Louise Abbot in 1959:

    "A God you understood would be less than yourself."

    Just 8 years before she wrote that, O'Connor was diagnosed with a devastating case of lupus. Her father died at an early age from it, and it led to her eventual death at the early age of 39. Suffering wasn't an occasional acquaintance, but a lifelong friend. This adds weight to her words. "God's ways are not our ways" wasn't cliche to her, but heart-resting, hope-giving truth. Truth is like a pillow. Somewhere you can lay your head at night.

    Show me what someone does with suffering and I'll show you their theology. It's hard to imagine picking up a Joel Osteen book after being diagnosed with cancer. Flannery's short stories, on the other hand, make a faithful friend. Especially "Revelation" and the joy you feel when the college-aged Mary Grace starts choking the quietly self-righteous Mrs. Turpin.

    A God who's bigger than you've constrained him to be is also a God who's better than you've imagined him to be. This is why O'Connor said that at the heart of all her writings is the idea of grace, God turning things upside down, humbling the proud, exalting the humble. Pride always makes God smaller and harsher than he really is.

    The beautiful thing about having a God bigger than you can understand is it means he must have purposes and reasons that are beyond our understanding too. He sees things we can't see. Knows things we don't know. Gives what He knows we need, takes what He knows we don't.

    This is why one of the verses I go to in my mind most often in a season where I have no idea what God is doing is Psalm 138:8. "The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me." Not MY purpose for me, which is more narrow and selfish than I'd like to admit, but HIS purpose for me, in all it's self-giving, other-loving, God-glorifying width and depth.

    As I write we're driving from Waukesha, WI to Lincoln, NE. We've gone 4 hours and still have 4 more to go. If I've realized anything this trip, it's that the USA is big, too big to take in all at once.

    And in a similar, yet more profound way, so is God. He's too big to always understand exactly what he's doing in our lives, and yet too good not to rest in. He has purposes beyond our ability to conceive, yet woven into those purposes is the fabric of His grace.

    I like to think this is why Flannery O'Connor had a strange love for peacocks, and kept them as pets. They were a daily reminder to her that the God who made these wastefully beautiful birds who don't fly was her God too.

    After all a God you understood would be less than yourself.

  • The Goodness of Disappointment

    We’re 6 days into our 28 day long cross-country road trip, and the theme of the weekend was a familiar one: disappointment. When there are 6 of you, chances are most of the time one of you is going to be disappointed. We all had our share this weekend. 

    Mine included a disappointing dinner choice in a great food city. My wife’s included making our way to a stunning view of Lake Michigan only to find it so covered in fog you could only see 10ft in front of you. My son’s included being mad we had to leave the house because they have a pool table, and literally all he wants to do is play pool the whole time. That last one feels like a CS Lewis illustration. 

    This got me thinking about disappointment. It’s one of the most consistent themes of life that we seem to talk about the least, much less handle well. Most of us either get stuck and bitter in our disappointment, or we brush past it so quickly we almost pretend life is supposed to be easy. 

    But disappointment can be a good thing, especially if we handle it with grace. Because there are four things disappointment can teach us:

    1. Life isn’t about us

    Donald Miller once wrote, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me.” It’s so easy for us to believe this. Life is supposed to go exactly the way I want it to all the time. When it doesn’t, even I’m handling it pretty well on the outside, on the inside I’m a toddler melting down. I’ve forgotten that life isn’t a story about me. It’s a story about Jesus in which I get to play a small, humble part. That reshapes not just my desires, but my expectations too.

    2. Life has seasons

    We’re in Michigan as I write this, and summers here are absolutely beautiful. I mentioned this to a friend who lives here yesterday and he quickly reminded me that as beautiful as the summers are, the winters are brutal. Life can be that way. In his book, Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggeman says there are basically three kinds of psalms. Psalms of orientation, where everything is happy and we’re thankful. Psalms of disorientation, where everything is upside down and we’re devastated. And psalms of reorientation, where things are made new, most of all us, and we’re delighted. This was the pattern for Jesus, life, death, and resurrection. And it’s the pattern for everyone who belongs to him, God’s plan for their life. Disappointment is part of the pattern, but not all of the pattern.

    3. No one is born patient

    No one is born patient. It takes a lifetime to learn it. Patience is one of the most bitter fruits of the Spirit (the honey dew if you will) and disappointment is the soil in which it grows best. Trusting Jesus when life is going exactly the way we want it to go is easy. Trusting him with our disappointments is a different story. Is he trustworthy? The good news is he is patient toward us even when we’re not so sure we can trust him. And he’s teaching us his patience. That the Christian life is less like a factory and more like farming. Slow work that often feels pointless. We’ll need lots of patience.

    4. The Lord loves us enough to disappoint us

    Like any good parent, the Lord loves us enough to both surprise us, and disappoint us. He not only sings his delight over us (Zephaniah 3:17), but he also isn’t afraid to tell us, “No.” Not because he’s some kind of cosmic jerk, but because he knows far more than we do about what would (and wouldn’t) be good for us. He not only has the best dream for our lives, he knows US, our addictions, our idols, our tendencies. Disappointment is a reminder that God is a Father who loves his children well.