A Shepherd’s Cave

I experienced my first Christmas in the Dominican Republic in 2012. It was the first time I had been away from my family for the holidays and completely taken out of the traditions I had known for my entire life. In that time, my thoughts would constantly drift toward what I would be doing if I was back in the states with friends and family.

That experience forced me to begin to disassemble all of the things I had made Christmas over time and all of the extra stuff (although none of it bad necessarily) that had crowded my perspective.

The next year, I was able to fly home for Christmas. The following year, moving back to the states, I was able to experience the kind of Christmas that was familiar to me, once again. However, both of those years , I found myself surprisingly wishing I was back in the Dominican Republic away from all the noise that this time of year can be. Christmas made bare by being taken out of what was “normal” for me had started to undo my perspective and craft a new one.

I sat outside this morning so my hair could air dry in this eighty degree, sunny weather back in the DR. On Christmas Eve (still weird).

I was thinking about what I read last night in part of my journal from a trip to the Middle East last summer. “Day 1 (6/15/15) Reflections: Dirty. Smelly. Damp. Dark. Poop.”

That first day, we threw our packs down at the mouth of this shepherd’s cave. We crawled down into the cave and sat in the dirt, breathing in musty air. I specifically remember our group leader saying, “I wish there was more poop in here.” He wanted us to fully experience the grossness of this place where shepherds brought their animals and to begin to grasp a fuller picture of who Jesus, God in the flesh, is.

I remember putting my hand in that dirt, completely unable to comprehend how undeserving the KING OF KINGS was to be born in a place like that. May we pause today, tomorrow, right now, and simply marvel at a Savior who is not sanitized, who is not afraid to step into this broken and messy world and our broken and messy lives. May we consider the invitation that He extends to just meet us where we are as we reflect on His birth and why He came here and the cost of His death, that we wouldn’t miss it.  May we allow His grace and love to burst forth in our lives and the lives around us as we yearn for Him to come, once again.

 

33

I cleaned out the contents of my car last week: water bottles, spikes, uniforms, cones, and workout plans. For the past two and a half months part of my day always involved thirty-three middle schoolers. This was our daily conversation.

Kid 1: “Coach! What are we doing today!?”

Me: “Running.”

Kid 2 or 5 or 7: “Do we have to? Can we at least just run to the gas station for slushies?”

Me: “Wait. This is the cross country team, right? No slushies.”

One Monday we were on the track running 400 and 200 meter repeats. I had divided the team up into four different groups according to pace. The first group had completed the workout, and one of the boys was standing next to me near the finish line. We were watching the last group run down the backstretch across the field. One runner, giving up, started walking while the others continued to push their pace. We looked at my watch; the time wasn’t the greatest. “You know, Coach, it really is more about how much you try, isn’t it? You don’t have to be the fastest necessarily,” he said. I stood there for a second, shocked at the validity of this observation coming from a seventh grade boy. I said, “You’re absolutely right. It is.”

Our team didn’t end up beating every other team out of the water or win every single race. I have no doubt that one day these kids could be part of a knock-out team, but this season wasn’t that season. What did happen, though, was that they showed up daily, and ran in heat and rain. They gave in to the workouts they tried to talk me out of doing. They stopped walking before they even reached a mile. They stole my hats and made fun of my awesome rear view bike mirror. They persevered through unwelcome obstacles. They finished.

This crew was all over the spectrum from seasoned and gifted runners to kids who had never run before. Looking back over the season, what I most value is seeing the start to finish process tangibly unfold before my eyes. Some ended the season by running a personal best. Some had radical time improvements overall. Some got beat by a teammate in a race or were disappointed by an injury. The end didn’t look the same nor did it turn out ideally for everyone, but they all arrived. They arrived differently and better from where they had started.

What I love about running is that there’s nothing flashy about it; it’s raw. It is inevitably painful, holding out a choice to fold to the moment or to keep going. When disappointment occurred in whatever form for one of my runners, I told them they could be sad about it for a minute, but then to move on.

Acknowledge, then grow. It is not that we ignore or dismiss hardship, but that it doesn’t have to destroy. Difficulty is an opportunity to choose growth, to not be left the same as we were. Our choice is if we will choose to let it. This is of highest value – who we are and who we become.

I see so many glimpses of Jesus in this. As I come to know Him more, I see how He values the journey that is always happening. He is a God who values the process, where we are, but how we end. To be truly transformed and changed is not to remain the same. The most beautiful journeys are the ones that are not without hardship, but the ones where you’ve been broken, sat in the dark, fallen into the dirt more times than you can count, but where you keep choosing to stand up and struggle well. This is a heart that overcomes.

From My Time in the Middle East

Two weeks ago, I returned from seventeen days of roaming around Israel and Jordan. It was a biblical study hiking tour.

I could write facts that I learned or post more pictures. I have fun adventure stories. I have favorite places. I have a list of everywhere we were.

But for now, here’s this.

I love questions. I love the challenge of asking a meaningful question. The worth of an answer can be measured by the question it stems from. One of my favorite questions I’ve been asked about my trip is, “What do you still find yourself thinking about the most from your time there?”

I’ve been thinking about being in Galilee. Bethsaida was there. It was the community where almost half of the original disciples came from and where they were shaped. I’ve been thinking about sitting on a rock by the shore of Tabgha Harbor where Jesus would have first invited the most unlikely few to follow him. I’ve been thinking about the mounds of ruins in the Decapolis cities on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, powerful pictures of idol worship, immorality, and self-seeking pleasure at its highest. I’ve been thinking about how the disciples impacted those cities they were sent to in such a staggeringly powerful way, one that forever changed the world.

How?

These are portions of Scripture that I couldn’t stop thinking about on the flight back to the states.

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:35, ESV)

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” [John 17: 20-21 NIV]

The first and foremost way that Jesus says people will know Him is by how His people love each other. The relationships we have with one another and how we interact are pictures that reflect Him. Or how they don’t. Later on, out of all the things Jesus could have prayed for future believers, He asks that we would be one like He is one with the Father, completely unified.

I am pierced by that.

I started to unintentionally reflect on my time in the Dominican Republic after returning. Something that subtly ended up characterizing my time in the DR was division and conflict. It was destructive, individually and collectively. I wouldn’t have said it at the time. Circumstances made it seem justifiable to treat the people around me poorly and how I reacted to situations. The thing is that I wasn’t really listening and I wasn’t really willing to and I wasn’t really honest. Practicing those things is difficult and time consuming and takes a great force of intentionality and time devotion. Most often, change is required. Who wants that? I didn’t. Not really. BUT. As pain-staking as the process of allowing the space for that was and as impossible as the mountain of perceived and real hurt seemed, I was refined by it. Not at first. I fought it for a long time. Where did that refining come from? It started with the people I was with.

Two of them are my friends standing beside me in the majority of my trip pictures. We weren’t always smiles and hand stands. Ten months ago, if you asked any one of us if we thought we would be exploring the Holy Land a year later, let alone together, we probably would have thought you were on drugs.

We lived together in a twenty-four seven ministry setting that was a perfect combination of factors to cut to the core of the heart, and mine was ugly. I didn’t know what was there until it started to manifest, made evident in my interactions with them. To have people in your life you can’t hide that from and who point it out is terrifying. My initial response to my unflattering heart condition was mostly a combination of denial and being offended. Isn’t it true that sometimes we just want people to confirm the excuses we make for how we conduct ourselves?

I didn’t realize how much I learned about community, even more so, how Jesus allowed me to know His grace more fully through them until I wasn’t with them daily anymore. I fully believe that God allows us to know more of who He is through the present people in our lives because He is a God of nearness, a God who gets close. It doesn’t always looks like we might expect or be who we expect. It isn’t always welcome. But, we are His image bearers. Why is it surprising that He would allow us to know Him more deeply through other people in our lives to such a vast degree? It’s a gift. It is how we are refined and chiseled to be more like Christ. Together.

I pray you all have friends like Jac & O’Dell. I’m increasingly aware of how I know the grace and forgiveness of Jesus more because of them fleshing it out to me. I was forced to deeply acknowledge the proof of my brokenness and need and to embrace them choosing to love me despite every justifiable reason not to. The process was imperfect and messy, but I can say now, it was good.

The kind of love that Jesus pleads with His Father that we, as His Body, as His Church, exemplify is baffling. It defies divisions, both external and internal: cultural, racial, ethnic, generational, personality, to name a few. It knocks down stubborn theological differences, the petty ones. It exposes them. It rallies together those who most truly know who He is in an unbreakable fellowship.

This instance in my life began a slow wrestle when I returned to America last summer. If I was unwilling to love the people around me (friends, laborers in ministry, fellow missionaries) as Jesus beckons to, how in the world could I call myself His true follower or expect to impact anyone “for Christ?” To sit in a spirit of refusal to extend the forgiveness and grace of Jesus is to not have truly or fully known Him or His gift. If you have, you can’t help but be changed! I’m saying this, not out of condemnation, but to convey the immensity of the pleading heart of God for His people to stand in unity, to be of the same purpose. That doesn’t mean we are all the same; it’s about our hearts toward each other as the people who claim Jesus Christ as Savior. I can look back at the division I experienced and contributed to and be devastated at how much it pained His heart, but it doesn’t have to win or have the last word. It hasn’t.

The true community of YHWH (Yahua, Yahweh) will unshakably stand together on His Word, His Truth, His Promises. As this country, this culture, and this world continue to move away from the Truth of Scripture, the more heat will His Church begin to experience, yet what joy because that is the proof, that is the refining that brings forth what is pure and true and right. It brings forth the unmistakable knowing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

What characterized the transformational influence of that first community of disciples? They loved each other, out of a fierce and firm knowing of how immeasurably loved they were by Jesus. They knew their inevitable condemnation apart from Him but the power and gift of His unmerited forgiveness. It changed them. It was the Gospel. Does it change us?

That’s what I’ve thinking about. That’s what I wrestle with.

On Sovereignty

A few months ago, I started going to this Bible study on Monday nights. A few weeks ago, some friends and I started grabbing coffee afterwards to continue on with conversations from it. Lately, we’ve been reading through Ruth.

 Throughout the entire book, the themes of provision and sovereignty occur constantly, on a grand scale and in the most minute details. Out of all the possible instances of this, the character and life of Naomi is a point where my thoughts drift back to and an ongoing point of conversation with my band of coffee people. 

Because Naomi forces a wrestle with a powerful question – What is God’s sovereignty? 

When the book of Ruth begins, Naomi, her husband, and the rest of her family have just moved from their home turf in Bethlehem to the land of Moab because of a famine. Then her husband dies. Then her two sons die. In the context of this, Naomi would not have solely lost her loved ones but her means of provision and protection as well. She’s a foreigner, in a godforsaken land, who has just been crushed with overwhelming loss. 

If you read on, Naomi eventually returns home. So the two women (Naomi and Ruth) went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed,”Can this be Naomi?” “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty, Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:19-21)

If that’s not intense, I’m not sure what is. Can you imagine the state of her heart? Deflated. Defeated. Beat up. Perplexed. Bitter. 

I can. Because that was mine for a very long time. 

What happens when your life shatters? 

I imagine Naomi’s heart and mind were in turmoil with questions like ‘God, who are you?’ ‘God, what’s the point?’ ‘God, this is not what I signed up for.’ ‘God, why did you allow all of these things to happen?’

If you continue to read on, Naomi’s life is filled with provision in many ways. Her daughter-in-law even ends up in the genealogy of David and later, Jesus. 

More than anything, though, I love that her journey of bitterness is recorded. I love that you can see her as a relatable human being who struggled, and who is flat out transparent enough to say to the people that knew her before her life was rocked, ‘Don’t even call me Naomi. Call me Mara. God crushed me.’ 

Before I waded into the most recent season of my life, comprised of navigating and dealing with what felt like my life derailing slowly over the two years before, I had this unexposed and false idea that God’s sovereignty means that everything should be a piece of cake. It’s one thing to think you know that isn’t true, and maybe even to profess it. It’s another thing to be faced with the reality that deep down in your soul you were white knuckle gripping that belief, as made evident by your reaction to your life circumstances. 

Those things Naomi said? Those could have been words out of my own mouth. 

Saying that God is sovereign doesn’t make hardship, struggle, or hurt vanish into thin air. It doesn’t always answer the question of why, if it ever does. The one truth that has been deeply taking root in my heart is God’s sovereignty defined as His unwavering ability to achieve His eternal purposes no matter what. All hell can be breaking loose, and He allows it. 

Why? I probably couldn’t tell you. 

Is it fair? I can’t answer that. 

Is it broken? Yeah, it is. 

For whatever reason, I think we sometimes assume that as we walk out this life, we should be free from adversity in the process, Christian or not. Call it adversity, call it hardship, call it struggle, call it an obstacle. It can be met with bitterness. It can be met with recoiling. It can be met with anger or resentment. Or, just maybe, it could be met with open arms, that despite understanding, can trust that somehow and someway, God is achieving and will achieve eternal purposes that are far beyond anything our finite minds can grasp. 

Remembering

Bethany Brown died a year ago today. With that comes the temptation to fixate my mind and thoughts on the traumatic parts that came with her unexpected death, but choosing to dwell on those things is not celebrating her life.

Beth’s death forced me to deal with who I really believe God is. It’s one thing to say God is good and another to unwaveringly trust it no matter what. My belief was shaken. Is He really good? How could God allow me to experience the death of my friend? My life became characterized by anger, bitterness, depression, and anxiety. I isolated myself from those around me, determined that I would never again experience the immensity of heartbreak and pain that I was sitting in.

Pain is an indication of brokenness, that something isn’t right. It exposes a need for healing, for restoration. Refusing to acknowledge that pain and need only prolongs the process of that. Over time, the truth that death BREAKS God’s heart struck me to the core to a new depth. It wasn’t just the death of my friend but the sobering reality of my utter helplessness in the face of death and of the chasm that separates us from God because of sin, something He never intended.

How great is the HOPE of Jesus Christ who conquered death, who redeems us from death, who allows us to take part in sharing that good news with those around us.

This life is not without hardship and struggle. My sweet friend was living proof of embracing this yet not letting it define her life. As time has gone on, I have realized more and more the magnitude of the impact that Beth has had on my life because of that.

With the knowledge of a terminal illness (which I knew nothing about until later) she sold everything she had, left her job, left her friends and family, and the comforts and conveniences of America to partake in the ministry of Crosswinds in the Dominican Republic.

She was one of the bravest people I’ve ever known. She could have easily chosen to dwell on her diagnosis with bitterness, anger, or self-pity, but somewhere along the way she resolved to persevere in spite of it. Beth lived a life of demonstrating what it looks like to cling to the hope of Christ and to allow herself to be compelled by His love despite circumstance, striving to live out the full life that God invites us into. That is worth celebrating, and even more so the hope of Christ.

I thank God for the gift of her friendship, who she was, and the privilege of knowing her during her time here. I’m also thankful for God’s grace in walking with me through this past year and for allowing me to know more fully, through the death of my friend, the confident hope that I have in Him.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  

Philippians 4:4

The Bread of Life

The past week or so, I’ve been drawn back again and again to the passage of Scripture where Jesus is talking about how he is the bread of life (John 6:25-59).

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53).

Sometimes, I fall into the habit of reading through Scripture in this mundane manner when I fail to be engaged in what it’s saying. Other times, I read something like this and think to myself, “If I was reading this verse alone, it would sound like Jesus is advocating for cannibalism.”

The beginning of this passage is slightly humorous. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” (John 6:25). Before all of this, Jesus had taken five small barley loaves and two small fish, broken them, and fed five thousand men. After everyone had eaten and had their fill, leftovers were collected. Jesus withdrew from the crowd to a mountain by himself, avoiding the people, for he knew they intended to make him king. Meanwhile, his disciples set sail, crossing the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum. Jesus wasn’t in the boat. He joined them later, strolling up to the boat, walking on the water. This was at night. When morning arrived, the crowd from the day before realized that Jesus was gone. There were no boats after the disciples left; they knew Jesus had not gone with them. The crowd then saw some boats coming in to the shore, which were from Tiberias. So, they hopped into them, setting off to cross the lake in search of Jesus (John 6:1-24).

“Rabbi, when did you get here?” They ask, probably somewhat baffled.

Jesus doesn’t answer this question. He doesn’t explain that he walked across the lake (3.5 miles) out to where his disciples were caught in the strong wind and waves. He doesn’t tell how his disciples where terrified when they saw him, thinking he was a ghost or how the wind and waves became calm instantly. He cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
(John 6:26-27)

The crowd asks him what they have to do in order to do the works God requires. “Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” The crowd asks him for a miraculous sign, so they might believe. They refer to the manna which God provided for their forefathers in the desert. Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Sir, give us this bread, they said (John 6:30-34).

Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.” (John 6:35-36).

They had seen Jesus multiply five small loaves of barley and two small fish just the day before. Jesus (God himself John 1) displayed his power, yet they asked for another miraculous sign. He had provided for their physical needs, knowing that the hunger and need they possessed went far beyond the physical.

Jesus continues, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:37-40).

The Jews in this crowd began to grumble. How could this man be say he came down from heaven? He’s Joseph’s son. We know his mother and father (John 6:41-42).

Jesus tells them to stop grumbling and that no one can come to the father unless the Father draws him, raising him up at the last day. Jesus says that no one has seen the Father except the one sent from him. He says, “He who believes in me has everlasting life.” He then goes on to explain that unless a person eats from his flesh and drinks of his blood, that person will not have life. Many disciples desert Jesus because of this hard teaching (John 6:44-59).

Jesus is the bread of life. Over and over again in this passage he states, “I tell you the truth…” I’m offering you this bread, this gift, this LIFE. You are hungry, not only physically but deep in your soul. Nothing you try, nothing you do will satisfy it. What you are seeking is only temporary. Seek what is LASTING, what ENDURES. Your condition is broken and fragile apart from Me. There is nothing you can do to earn it, to work for it. Rather, “Believe in the one he has sent.

Believe.

This word is pisteuo in Greek, derived from pistis, which means to trust, to have confidence in. Another way of defining it would be “God’s divine persuasion.” It’s amazing that the very nature of this word points back to a Giver, to God. This trust, this faith, this knowing is never generated but rather received.

John 6:44 states “No one can come to me (Jesus) unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” This verse is not saying that God is selective in who is drawn to him. God’s will is that none shall be lost (John 6:39). The word draw means to drag, pull in, persuade. It again points back to God as the initiator of the persuasion. He desires to be known.

Later in verse 65 of this chapter, Jesus states, after many disciples had left and claimed that this teaching was hard, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” This word enable (didomi) means a gift that is offered or placed, to grant.

God is holy. Humanity is fallen. Think about this in light of these words.

Acknowledging the holiness of God would require the realization that I am unholy. In my broken, sinful state, I’m separated from God. There is nothing I can do to generate my own holiness or to put myself in a place of being acceptable to God. He alone enables; he gifts it.

This is why Jesus says that he is the bread of life and that he is “…the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Cue the grumbling Jews. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat” they ask. Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:51-54).

In giving his life for the world, he was making reference to his willing suffering that would come, the cross. The only way to be restored to the perfect holiness of God, to be accepted and reconciled to him, would be a perfect sacrifice. This is the gift of God and the bread of life. He invites us to come to him. We must choose.