straws.

i enjoyed a wonderful hike this past weekend with some of my closest friends, and during the hike, we got to thinking and talking about stuff like free will, predestination, and whether or not the future is set. i realize how pretentious that sounds – stuff like this really does just come up, though. it’s not like we all put on our old man caps, light up our pipes and say, “let’s ask big theological questions.”

no, it just happens. it just kinda goes in that direction. i think that we wonder a whole lot. i think we should. i wonder how much we can and/or will ever know, you know? there are some big questions out there. there are some crazy concepts out there. i mean, Christianity – heck, spirituality – is a little crazy. it’s a little vast, i’d say it’s impossible to grasp.

i think we’re misguided a bit when we say we know certain things…i mean, in our talk about free will, for example, one of us was #teamfreewill, one of us was #teamimnotreallysure, and i think both of us agreed that we’re #teamhowcanwebe? free will isn’t exactly something we can prove, you know? it may turn out that this whole time, we’ve been destined to take every step that we took and we just made ourselves feel better about it by saying that we had free will, but that’s just an illusion of control because we were destined to think that we had free will. (is your head spinning yet?)

i love conversations like that. i wrote a whole post about how i’m not sure the judgement of God is what we think it is. i think that healthy speculation is a form of worship – rattling the cage just a little bit of what you’ve always thought and always believed. i guess it reminds me a little bit of what it’s like when someone doesn’t know you really well and they try to give you a compliment or explain a bit of what you’re like, and you sit there and smile and think, “i think i can understand how they’d get that.” it’s flattering a bit, because they’re at least formulating some thoughts on you.

i wonder if God does that. i wonder if God’s favorite type of people (i know He doesn’t have favorite people) are the ones who aren’t really sure…who don’t write conclusively about Him – at least not about things that aren’t sure. this we know: God created the Heavens and the earth, God created us, God loves us, God sent Jesus, Jesus lived and died in our place and for our sins, He makes forgiveness accessible to all of us (because we’re a broken race and each daggum one of us needs forgiveness and grace) and He sent the Holy Spirit to live in us and tell us more about Himself. We’re pretty dang sure He’s coming back one of these days, and we’re pretty dang sure that He’s going to establish His kingdom on earth.

we don’t know: if Christians will be “taken to heaven” pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib; we don’t know exactly what predestination means, if we have free will, or if everyone’s supposed to speak in tongues or if no one is supposed to speak in tongues, or if purgatory is a thing or not, or if people who love Jesus and are already dead are already in heaven or are waiting on Him to come back, or if we’re supposed to be submerged or sprinkled or if we won’t get into heaven if we’re not baptized (actually, i’m of the mind that we do know that one,) we don’t know if what Paul said about women in 1 Timothy was prescriptive to Timothy’s church or descriptive of how the whole church should operate. we don’t know if hell is a literal physical place with literal, actual fire where people literally burn forever or if hell doesn’t actually exist and people just stop existing altogether when they die and don’t know Jesus. there’s a lot, lot, lot that we don’t know, and i think that it’s us pretending that we do that’s hurt a lot of folks. i think it’s a false sense of certainty about things that don’t really matter that pushes people away from the church, and i think we’d do well to let go of some of those things.

 

i think we’d do well to speculate – sometimes even wildly – and think a little bit harder about what God may be really like…try to get our minds around another square inch of He Who exists outside of time and space. i’m not saying that i shun good theology – on the contrary, i think we should major in majors and minor in minors. i think we should hold tight to the good stuff: we’re all messed up but God sure isn’t and He did everything He needed to do to accept us even though we’re messed up, and it cost Him a lot. that’s it in a nutshell. the rest of it: swing away, yeah? discuss it. go back and forth a bit. have some conversations. just don’t pretend you know anything.

homebody/heartbroken.

[i don’t know if i’m writing this for anyone but myself. if anyone gleans from it, great, but consider this a self-indulgent disclaimer.]

i learned something about myself this past week. er…maybe i had it reaffirmed. again.

y’all – i’m a homebody. i can only say it that way. i’ve never been one for vacations, my graduation trip that i took lasted all of about six hours before i drove back home, i get antsy when i start thinking about hotels and going out for every meal and the fact that i won’t be in my own bed and won’t park in my carport and won’t wake up and brush my teeth in my bathroom, etc. i just do not travel well.

a week ago today,  i picked up a rental car and headed (with another teller from Danville) to Columbus, Ohio for training. they put you up in a hotel, pay for a couple of your meals, and let you run fake transactions all day so that when you get back to the branch, you are more comfortable with the system. it’s hands-on, non-consequential training. pretty cool.

well, start with the fact that we didn’t leave til 1pm. i’m a morning person. i’d rather get on the road sooner, because i don’t love killing half a day doing whatever. i ended up getting the rental car, having a PSL, playing video games for a bit, and just pacing antsily (weird, spell check tells me that’s not a word) until it came time to head over to pick up my fellow teller. we drove up and had a good conversation for strangers – we talked movies for about seventy miles and they told stories of their time in the Army, etc. we got up with no problems.

one of the reasons i don’t like traveling is because one, i’m frugal, and two, because i’m frugal, i feel there’s nothing to do when i travel. it doesn’t help that the majority of what i’d consider acceptable tourism is checking out coffee shops that are unique to the area, and the ones i wanted to see closed at 5 and 7, consecutively. we got out of teller training at 5 every day, so that ruled one out, and the other was a ‘twenty-minute’ drive, which i’d make after we went back to the hotel, got changed, got my stuff, and drove into downtown columbus at 5:45pm, so the drive would have been longer than twenty minutes. no cool coffee shop for me.

there were a myriad of restaurants around our hotel, but less than a mile away, there was a Chipotle Mexican Grill. people who know me know exactly where i ate every single night (esp. considering that work paid for meals.) it was actually really nice – i have always wanted a sense of routine, and i had it for these three days in Columbus: woke up, had Starbucks, drove to training, trained, had lunch (i ate pizza every day in the cafeteria, because it was familiar,) went back to the hotel, got Chipotle, watched baseball. every day was literally the same: a wonderful problem to have in my opinion, at least given the circumstances (traveling. i do not like traveling.)

we finished up on Thursday afternoon around 4pm, and drove back. we made the trip almost uninterrupted – got back into Lexington just after 8pm. one of my favorite friends picked me up from the rental car place, we went for a walk and had ice cream and great conversation, and then i went home. did a little laundry and went to bed because the next day was retreat.

retreat was in Harlan, KY, a lovely town about three hours away from here. let me go ahead and say this now: i’m gonna complain a little bit, and it’s not about retreat. really. truly. genuinely – retreat was amazing, and i realized upon coming home last night that i would have thoroughly regretted not going…so hopefully that’s clear. i loved spending the weekend with my friends.

that said, i was in a funk all weekend. thankfully, my ride and i waited until about noon to head down, so i had time to recover a bit, walk to the coffee shop, get my stuff ready for leading worship on Saturday night, finish my laundry, pack, etc. by noon, i felt as ready as i think i would. my friend that i rode down with was my myspace buddy in high school (it’s kind of a really cool story how we met and re-met ten years later, after all but disappearing from each other’s lives – but that’s another story) so we had really good talks and didn’t have a dull moment. we enjoyed the challenge of finding this little mountain road that would take us to the retreat spot.

the whole time, i was having a bit of an internal conversation – “jeff, you will engage this weekend. i don’t care if you’re tired, i don’t care if you’re a little disoriented. don’t use this traveling stuff as an excuse. be present, be with God, be with people.” so i did the best i knew how to engage. i got out of the car and immediately met four people i’d never met before, helped unload and unpack, and we toured the location once we got everything loaded up into the kitchen. i did the best i knew how.

friday night, as people started showing up and the dynamics multiplied, i started feeling a little better – i figured if i couldn’t go home, then maybe home would come to me. maybe i’d start to engage because it’s all about the people. a bunch of us talked late into the night, sat by a fire, played ping-pong, etc – had a good time. i went to bed around 1:45am, and had resolved to wake up at 5. i woke up at 5.

i woke up distracted and in a fog. i still didn’t feel right. i felt distracted, felt my head turned, felt disoriented. i didn’t understand. i guess maybe i still don’t. i went to the lodge, brewed the coffee (i fancied myself the Keeper of the Morning, Guardian of the Coffee For Those Who Awaken at the Wee Hours of the Day) and had time with God in the Bible and in my journal. i prayed/begged God that i’d be able to focus, be a little more attentive, that i wouldn’t make excuses for myself not to check out. i’d hoped that it was something spiritual, something i could pray for God to break, something i could fix with either prayer or cognitive-behavioural therapy.

i wrote a letter to my little brother, because he’s a worship leader, too – i wrote him (knowing i wouldn’t send it until i got back, because i couldn’t) about how i believe that God would be faithful to use me in my weird state and that sometimes the only songs we can bring are heart-broken ones, sometimes our hearts are malfunctional and let us down, but God doesn’t, and God cares about us showing up. i prayed at the end of the letter that it would encourage him one day when he’s leading worship and not feeling right.

i poured cup after cup of coffee, wrote a few more lines in my journal, stared listlessly ahead of me, waiting on God to talk, to say something that would make everything feel better.

skip ahead: He didn’t.

i spent Saturday in this half-funky state, thrilled to be around my friends, excited to lead worship, but, quite frankly, longing to be home. i like home.

Saturday was a fun day, we had a morning session with a great breakout group discussion, fun free time, played more ping-pong, we did a lot of good stuff that day. Saturday night rolled around, and i had the immense honor of leading worship, which was powerful and good, and i was more excited for that night than literally any time i’d led worship so far in my life, and God showed up and moved and spoke a lot to a lot of people, and man, my friends love Jesus and are good at singing, and it was unreal. i sweat more than any other time i’d led worship (perhaps there is a direct correlation between sweat level and excitement level?) we played all the songs we’d planned and then my good friend and co-leader Hannah popped a few more choruses and bridges out of her head and led us very well in even more worship. it was great.

but, guess what: i didn’t feel amazing yet. i got a lot of really kind compliments and i appreciated them a lot, but i still felt this funk, this half-hearted something-or-another, i couldn’t pin-point it, couldn’t identify it, didn’t want to admit that i just wanted to be at home.

see, i’ve always wanted to be the type of person who can jump from thing to thing. i’m not. i’m convinced of it now – i like buffer time, i like to be able to sit on my couch and breathe for a bit, i like for the schedule to be clear for a little bit so i can get my bearings.

saturday night, after worship, i grabbed my good friend Ben, a friend i consider a brick (see: bricks.) and i asked him to pray with me. i couldn’t shake this funk, and i wanted to. i told him i didn’t feel attentive or present. he told me i didn’t come off that way, that he thought i was doing a good job of engaging with people, and i thanked him, but then i realized something perhaps even worse than the reality of being in a funk: you can be in a funk and it doesn’t always look like that. on one hand, that’s a really good thing, because then you can still be yourself and engage with people, but on the other hand, it doesn’t feel like you’re being yourself, which is kind of the absolute worst. it means you’re not enjoying it as you go, it leaves you with this feeling that it could be so much better if you’d just get rid of the funk part.

i’ll skip ahead some more: this continued, uninterrupted, until i got home last night. really. i prayed and prayed and prayed some more and on Sunday morning (i slept in until 5:30 and dodged the bullet of anyone being up between 5-5:30, which, let’s be honest, was no one – because everyone was in bed at like 1am.) and at one point, i sensed God saying, “stop trying to talk. let your words be few.” you know, like that verse in Ecclesiastes? so i tried that. i tried being silent, i tried waiting for the word that God would say that would crush my funk and make me SuperChristian Jeff, shaking hands and laughing and being all “praise God!” but it never came. i was in a funk as i led worship Sunday morning, as we packed up, as we ate lunch, and as we drove home.

the first session on Saturday morning was about one part of a reflexive equation: that, according to Jesus, Love God = love yourself = love others, and you can interchange any parts of those because they are all important to being a functional, impactful, kingdom-bringing human. we can’t love one of two of those three options, they all matter. so, in the morning, he talked about loving ourselves. i’d heard about this idea a bit in the past, and knew that there was some weird stuff out there about self-love so i tread carefully, but listened and took in a lot of what he said. a big thing was self-care, which i appreciated. we went on about the day and it was around the time i got back to my house on Sunday night that i started to recall some more of what he’d said.

i felt so bad, so guilty, that i’d been in a funk. most people didn’t notice, but i confessed it to a close few, including one friend that i felt i’d treated especially differently than usual, and i really worried that i’d hurt them. i hated the thought that i could come home and suddenly be fine.

so, i took a walk and digested everything that had happened in the last week. i walked myself through the big parts of it, through what may have triggered this and that, and realized that i had had quite a week. i still don’t know if it needs to be an excuse or an explanation. because here’s the thing – i tried literally everything i knew to shake it off. i did what i felt the Lord prompted me to do, which is to ask for help, and had Ben pray for me on Saturday night. i felt better, but not entirely, not the way i’d hoped (i was hoping for a Spirit-filled crying session, cathartic and clarifying.)

maybe, just maybe, we’re human, i’m human. we have our comfort zones and nobody asked us to feel comfortable outside of our comfort zone, just to go. and i guess i did, and according to people, i did okay, and maybe that’s enough. maybe i can/should tell my ENFJ self that the F doesn’t always have to line up perfectly for life to be going in a good direction. maybe it’s not about emotional perfection – maybe it’s about obedience.

maybe i want to remove that maybe. maybe i’m attached to the word, though. here’s what i know: in this weekend, in this state i felt so bad about, i had multiple folks come up to me after worship and say thanks for a particular song choice, or for something the Holy Spirit had prompted me to say in/between a song; i had people write or say unbelievably encouraging things that i believe will steel and solidify my spirit in days to come; i was able to write notes to other men and invite them into further, deeper, better friendship, and i’m learning the reality of the line of one of the songs we sang this weekend:

i throw my weakness into Your greatness, this broken heart is all You want.

consequence.

“rules were made to be broken.” ever heard that? i’ve always had a hard time with that concept. not because i’m a holy-rolling guy who’s never broken a rule before in his life – trust me, i’ve broken plenty. no, i’m just really bad in the aftermath of having broken a rule. i don’t like what happens next. i don’t like being caught in a lie – i feel really gross. i don’t like being caught period. i feel terribly embarrassed, i feel ashamed and scared and small.

i guess there’s some verity to that sentiment though, yeah? i mean, you never really know why a rule’s in place until you’ve broken it.

which is exactly why rules are there, because you find out real quick what happens when you don’t follow it.

you following me?

i’ll try again, just in case i need to.

rules, in and of themselves, usually leave out their reasoning. at least, i think that’s accurate. the reasoning is either implied or trusted a lot of the times.

“NO PARKING” usually means: “normally you could park here, but if you park here, it’s gonna block traffic, or we’re gonna close off the road for a parade and you’re not going to be able to leave and you’ll hate us and we’ll hate you so why don’t you just not park there?” (but, of course, that doesn’t fit on a sign.)

“DO NOT WALK ON GRASS” usually means: “hey, we just planted fresh seeds or treated the grass (or whatever reason you’d put up a do not walk sign, i don’t really know) so we’d appreciate if you didn’t undo what we just did by walking on it. give us just a few days, ok?”

“DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS” usually (probably) means: “hey, see these cool animals we’ve got in a zoo? (please, for the sake of argument, do not take into account the morality/immorality of zoos.) they’re cool, right? welllllll, we’ve got a really specific diet we feed them. and i know it sounds crazy, but if you feed them that bag of peanuts you just bought, then there’s gonna be all kinds of stuff in their system that we’re trying to avoid them having, and they may not respond well to it, so enjoy your peanuts and trust us to feed them, ok? ok. thanks.”

the reason that we have stop signs and stop lights and yellow lights and other traffic signals is because if we didn’t have any, then a bunch of maniacal folks in one-ton death machines would be zooming around anywhere between 25 and 55 miles an hour and there’s no telling who would hit who, sooooo, just stop when you see red, cool? thanks.

point is, rules are usually there for a good reason. i’m convinced that, despite the craziness of the world we live in, the vast majority of rules have the good of someone or something at heart and while we may not think they apply to us (i’ve got a big maverick streak in me, so i get it) if everyone thought that way, then nobody would follow any rules and our world would be chaos.

you and i live in a world that regularly rejects the rules God gave us. and, i get it. there is a way that seems right to a man. that’s so true that Solomon wrote it twice (see: Proverbs 14:12; 16:25.) but also twice, he wrote that that way leads to destruction or death. in other words, Solomon is saying, “yeah, i know that you don’t think that rule that God gave you is a good rule. go ahead, try it: but it probably won’t end well for you.”

you know, some people may think that sounds harsh. maybe sounds, i don’t know – confrontational, or condescending, or inciting, or whatever you want to call it. kinda sounds like Solomon is inviting us to try stuff out, and it sounds a little threatening. and a lot of us, like a kid in a movie, decide that we’re gonna go in the basement anyway, because we’re not scared of the boogeyman – we’ve got something to prove. we’re our own masters. we don’t conform to the rules, right?

for me, this was: “yeah, i know, God – i know You said that it’s a good idea to save sex until marriage, but, You see, i love this girl.” (i didn’t love her.) so, that’s (more or less) what i did. and it didn’t go well for me. i got insecure, got jealous, got scared, got a chip on my shoulder, got mad at the church, and was convinced that if it weren’t for all this church-talk about how you shouldn’t be sexually involved with someone before marriage, then i wouldn’t feel so bad. so, my guilt was all the church’s fault, or so i said.

or, “yeah, God – i know You said that we should take care of our money and be good stewards, but one day i’ll have such a good job that i’ll be able to pay for this, and i’ll pay it off then.” aaaaaand i racked up a few thousand bucks in credit card bills. and i’m still fighting to pay ’em down. and it’s holding me back from a few things i’d like to do with my life (get a car, save to make a down payment on a house, stuff responsible adults should be able to do) because that’s the consequence. that’s what happens when i don’t treat money wisely.

have you got any stories like that? i’ll bet you do – and i encourage you to get real honest with yourself about it.

the reason i’m writing is this: God has an order for the world. He’s got a way that He envisions the world working, and get this: it’s perfect. it’s actual perfect. if we followed the design that God set up for the world, then it’d be pretty dandy, and things would go pretty well for us. in fact, God uses this sort of language with one specific commandment when He’s giving out the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. He says, “honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

i’m not sure if i’m enough of a Bible scholar to tell you why God included that qualifier with that particular commandment, but i’m beginning to wonder if i need to be. i’m beginning to wonder if this is one of those times when – just like we do (so maybe we got it from God) – God is getting a little ahead of Himself with some of the rules and then remembers, “oh, yeah, and before I go any further this is why i’m giving you these rules – so that it’ll be well with you. that your days may be long.” (if you think that God doesn’t ever get His thoughts mixed up and get ahead of/behind Himself, see Genesis 3:22)

a lot of people think that God is terribly judgmental and vindictive and vengeful – maybe that has something to do with all of the language of judgment, vindication, and vengeance He uses in the Bible – but i’m gonna submit a bit of a theory to you.

my thought is this: God’s not like a policeman in a car, watching and waiting for someone to break a rule so He can pop on His lights, chase ’em down, and arrest them for breaking the law. no – if God were like a cop, i think He’s the type that sits in His car at a busy intersection and sees someone fly through at 55 miles an hour when there was a red light, and there’s an accident. and He mourns it. and He wishes they’d stopped at the red light, because it would have been better for them.

in other words, maybe the judgement of God is that He doesn’t always intervene when we mess up. that He waits on us to get desperate and ask Him for help. (i won’t lie – i’m a little nervous that i may have let myself down with the analogy, but hopefully i can land this plane.) like, maybe the judgement of God doesn’t look like Him getting really mad and beating people up when they screw up. maybe it just looks like things unraveling when they were supposed to stay together, because God made us – like Himself – with agency and when we don’t do the right things with that agency, then things don’t go right.

maybe – i suppose my point is – God doesn’t have to do anything to make our lives hard when we don’t obey Him. maybe a hard life is the natural consequence of not obeying Him.

consider a few references: in John 3:18, Jesus said that whoever does not believed is condemned already, as if to say, God doesn’t have to do any extra condemning when someone doesn’t believe in Jesus. because we’re already condemned. because our world already lives under a curse (thanks, sin, and again, see Genesis 3, which features a stunning example of God cutting Himself off mid-sentence) then the pre-existing condition of the world is: cursed. crap is gonna hit the fan at some point or another. it will unravel.

consider a couple of times in Hosea, when God is doling out “judgement” on Israel: “you’ve plowed iniquity, and reaped injustice…war shall arise among your people, all your fortresses will be destroyed” but sandwiched right in between those two sentences is this: because you have trusted in your own way. (see: Hosea 10:13-14) You made the calls you thought best. this is what happens as a result of those choices you made.

these are the consequences.

then, in the very next chapter, He tells them that they won’t come back to Egypt, Assyria will be their king, the sword will rage against their cities and devour them because of their own counsels (see: Hosea 11:5-6) and then God says: these people are (hell-) bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, He shall not raise them up.

He’ll sit in the car and watch the accident happen. cruel, or consistent?

consistent with a God who made us with the capacity to choose. consistent when you consider that every breath is a mercy – that we were created by God for Him and spend such a small fraction of our time glorifying Him.

it’d be cruel if we were owed anything.

but we’re not.

don’t deceive yourself.

this is the way the world works. ideas have consequences, a book once said, but actions do, too – perhaps even more so. when person X does thing A, then thing B happens. sometimes thing B happens to person Y. that’s just true. when you have sex with someone, you might have a baby. that’s just true. when you drink too much, you might do or say something dumb that could very well carry some repercussions. when you steal, you might get caught, and it might follow you forever. you might have something on your record that takes a while to get expunged. if you get angry and destroy someone’s property, you’ll probably have to pay for it. if you abuse drugs, there may be physical consequences you have to live with for the rest of your life. that’s just true.

but/so here’s what’s cool. while God may not – within the confines of His righteousness (which is preeeeeetty broad still – be able to do away with the physical consequences of the stuff you’ve done, He sure can take care of the spiritual ones. He can (and is willing and eager to) call you Son so your name isn’t orphan anymore. He can give you shelter so you’re no longer lost. He can change the things you want. He can break chains. He can break addictions. He can change your impulses and the very way you think. He can. He will! He can put a little bit (or a whole lot) of heaven in you so that you AND the world can see it, and while there may be parts of your body that are perishing (as Paul writes) your inner man can be growing, renewing, thriving, and always pointing – pointing toward a new and living way, a reality that is now and is yet to come, the reality of the world that will one day be and that we get to glimpse in the here and now: a renewed world, where the curse of sin is broken forever. where work is not cursed, where tempers are not lost, where minds are not tangled and lost in a mess of jealousy, confusion, greed, and distraction. where we live – forever – with the God who made us, without the sin that destroys.

that’s the cool part.

clay.

it seems to me that there are two different ways we can respond to things, but namely to God and the things He commands: submission or defiance.

defiance sounds like such a harsh word, especially when it seems like something isn’t a big deal, when it seems more like simple disobedience. it seems like a harsh word when disobedience seems like the thing that comes more easily, and more in line with our nature (news flash: we have a bit of a nature for disobedience, anyway…)

it doesn’t seem like defiance if you choose to go a different route than your GPS suggests to go home. and this is, of course, a bad analogy, because i can buy that we may know the better route given traffic at certain times of day – but consider this: God isn’t a faulty GPS who only sees the shortest possible distance and doesn’t account for traffic. no, God is supremely wise, supremely good, supremely sovereign, and it seems to me that the things He commands His people is always – EXCLUSIVELY – leading to life.

He’s a Father who gives good gifts to His kids. (Matt. 7:11)

He’s the God whose word illuminates the path of those who hear it and welcome it. (Psalm 119:105)

He’s the God who makes known the path of life (Psalm 16:11)

He’s the God who will one day wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 7:17)

He’s the God who sent His Son to make a way for all to live eternally with Him (John 3:16)

He’s the God who Authors our salvation (Hebrews 12:2)

He’s a Potter, and we are clay. (Isaiah 64:8.)

As the song says, He’s a good, good Father. His way always leads to life. His way often confounds us, His way rarely (if ever) makes sense according to the way that most people think, but that doesn’t change His goodness. This is perhaps the hardest thing to understand, and i can attest to its difficulty. i can testify to some of the very distracted prayers we lift up to Him because it’s hard to see past our circumstance – whether that’s loneliness, financial struggle, a lack of a clear direction, loss of something or someone near and dear – i get that. i’ve been there, too.

i get the temptation to lean away, and not to lean in. that’s instinctive.

here’s what i know: stuff happens. pain happens. hurt happens. loss happens. and i know how tempting it is to believe that in a life with God, none of this should happen. technically, you’re right – in the garden, before sin came in, none of it did happen. but then sin happened, and it does happen.

but that doesn’t mean we just consign ourselves to that reality forever and curse God for it by in our inaction and disobedience. all through Job and the Psalms, we find these “how long” statements – how long will my enemies triumph over me? how long will You crush me? how long must i be sorrowful? how long will You just stand there and look? how long will other people get the better of me?

you know, God has His fair share of “how long” statements, too – how long will y’all refuse to obey what I’ve commanded you? how long will you refuse to go into the land I’ve promised you? how long will you refuse to humble yourselves before me? how long will you grumble against me? how long will you keep wavering between two options? how long will you keep holding on to your wicked thoughts?

now, the good news (as has already been alluded to) is that this isn’t just a combative, continuous back-and-forth blame game between us and God. even if this was a fair exchange of grievances, God decided to step in and settle it Himself in the form of Jesus.

the curse of sin, in which this age-old back-and-forth of “how long?” is rooted, is lifted through Jesus because of His perfect life and substitutionary sacrifice; because of the fact that He – sinless and perfect and complete – was punished as one of us, who are sinful and imperfect and incomplete, so that we’d have a way back into this eternal life, this eternal wholeness, this eternal shalom – peace, harmony, wholeness – the world the way it’s supposed to be.

the main reason i’m writing today is to hopefully encourage you – i think there’s deep joy in embracing our role as clay in the hand of the Potter. i think there’s freedom in letting go of control, of releasing the pressure to make everything happen yourself, in trusting that God always has our best in mind – not to imply that our lives will be perfect now, but that He’s leading us in the way everlasting, til the day He makes the world new again, and the curse of sin, death, and suffering will be lifted forever.

that promise is worth the cost of faithfulness now.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)

bricks.

You make known to me the path of life;

in Your presence there is fullness of joy;

at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11.)

 

i think i wrote about something similar to this my last time on the blog: fall has gone from being one of my most hated seasons to one of my favorites. i’m a sucker for cold mornings and evenings, with warm days and afternoons. i’m a sucker for playoff baseball, college football, and a pumpkin spice latte. i’m a sucker for wearing my jacket. so you’ll forgive my exuberance at this time of year, dear reader, because on certain days my heart feels so full of joy that it could burst.

especially lately.

now, i’m not of the mind that God is only interested in our happiness – that is by no means true. i think holiness supersedes happiness and i think it is dangerous to think otherwise. however, i am of the mind that sometimes God gifts us with our favorite things to remind us He’s faithful. i’m of the mind that God loves us through His people, and often times we can experience an emotional sensation of the love of God because of certain people who are around; and i’m of the mind that the heavens declare the glory of God and we can be convinced/reminded of the love and faithfulness of God in the form of a beautiful sunrise, a cool summer breeze, or a chilly fall evening.

i spent an afternoon about a month or two ago at the Arboretum (one of my favorite Lexington spots) sitting by a tree with my bible, journal, and some worship music in my ears. as the ideal July (let’s just assume it was July, anyway) afternoon – complete with a cloudless sky and mild chill – passed by, i was reminded of the numerous conversations i’ve had at the Arboretum: the countless times my dear friend Jess and i sat by the “crying tree” and discussed boy/girl problems and our thoughts on certain parts of Christian culture; the time that Sean and i talked by another tree about the transitions we were both in and how doggone hard it is to write a book; the few Bible studies i’d had there; and from there, i got to thinking about how many amazing, incredible people that God has/had put in my life, especially in the last year.

(i don’t know where you’re at, reader. my hope is that this portion of my story provides you with deep encouragement.)

at the end of the year 2015, i was pretty broken, pretty lonely. i’ve written about it many times in past blogs, so i will not prolong the point, but – i had largely turned my back on the church, i was pretty much alone. i lived in a cramped apartment that i hated, and i was pretty happy with my job but still had my days where i needed/wanted to get away from it. i still wrote a fair share, which is probably how i coped, but what i really needed and wanted was community, a sense of friendship. this continued more or less all through 2016. everyone felt at an arm’s length – there were people that i worked with, people i served, and people i occasionally grabbed a beer with, but there weren’t many folks that i really knew, or who knew me (not to mention that i felt pretty self-estranged, given some of the stuff that happened in 2015.)

put simply, i needed a friend or few.

pretty amazing how God sometimes lets us get desperate for something so that we know that it’s He who comes through. someone shared that thought with me this week – that even Adam in the garden was given time to be alone so that it became clear that he needed someone else around.

at the beginning of this year, it seems that God opened the floodgates of friends. He took me from a very select few (outside of co-workers) to introducing me to a massive group of young adults in Lexington. my “base” blew up pretty quickly, and it wasn’t long until i had a number of things i could do every week on almost any night of the week, usually with a swath of people.

this reality has been overwhelming me lately in the best possible way. the other day i had a dream in which i got to see and embrace a very old friend until the point we cried. funnily enough, the next day i got to see a bunch of folks i hadn’t seen a few months, and then that weekend, folks from Berea that i hadn’t seen in years. i actually did weep on the way out of that gathering – partly out of pride for seeing how well these people were doing and how much some of them had grown; partially out of gratitude that i got to call them friends and gratitude that i got to see them again, and partly out of an overwhelming sense of joy that God has enriched this extrovert with so many incredible people, both back home (where i’m from) and in Lexington (new home.)

see, i guess the point i’m getting at is not so much how lucky i am (although that is true, and i could go on and on about the things that have filled me with both happiness and deep joy) but maybe let’s talk about the role that we are meant to play in each other’s lives.

i’m gonna take a liberty or two in my interpretation of scripture real quick (although i may not need to do so.) in Ephesians 4, Paul’s talking to the church about how God gave the different types of ministers – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers – for the sake of equipping the saints to do the work of ministry. my stretch here is that maybe we can just lump those five-fold ministry gifts together and say that God gave us each other (whether you’re an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a shepherd, or a teacher) as a whole to equip and encourage and spur one another on for Kingdom work. i don’t know about you, but i find myself (even subconsciously) responding in light of this call from Paul, in the sense that when i find myself around God’s people, i’m more and more encouraged to do God’s work. in other words, the reason God gives us each other is to settle once and for all the question of whether or not we’re loved so that we can move on to Kingdom work. Hebrews backs this up in chapter 12, verse 1 – since we’re surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, let’s lay aside every weight…and run the race that’s before us.

i’m convinced that this is the role we play for each other – we testify to each other of God’s goodness, love, and faithfulness so that we can all go forward with Kingdom work. i’ve been searching for an analogy, but the best one i can come up with is this: i think we’re like bricks. every brick in a building has four bricks around it – it has a brick that supports it, a brick on either side, and a brick that it upholds. together, each one playing its role, they form a building, in this case – the house of God.

 

 

 

never.

God has a way of always showing up.

there’s a sensation i experience every time fall starts to roll around – the air grows slightly crisp, it’s cool and dry, and there’s a mild bite and chill to it. it’s a little sentimental. it calls to mind some of the more pleasant experiences of my life – worship retreats, early morning commutes from Lexington to Berea before i started attending church in Lexington. it calls to mind late 2013 when i began working in Lexington, and seeing a girl. it reminds me of when we went to Southland a few times – a church that caught my attention long before i started attending in August of 2016. now, Southland ain’t a perfect church, and/but/so that’s not the point of this post. but i remember feeling something when i went there for the first time. some sense of camaraderie, some sense of community, some sense that made me understand how/why it’s a place that so many people – and of such varying church background – attend.

it reminds me of a weekend i spent with my dad in Ohio a long time ago – probably 2008 – we stayed in a Holiday Inn Express and had coffee at a Borders on a Saturday morning. at the time, i was big into Hillsong United and i heart revolution had just come out, so i was listening to it that morning. it reminds me of football games with my dad; of helping him mow the lawn on Saturdays before asking if i could go inside and watch baseball around 2.

it recalls a few more bitter times, to be sure – i could list them off if i wanted to give them a little more credence, but i won’t at present.

i guess you could say that this fall air gets me thinking about the faithfulness of God a little bit. of, how the song says, all of my life, in every season, He is still God, and i have a reason to sing, a reason to worship. it makes me think of God’s “never” statements.

 

I’ll never leave you. (Josuha 1:5.)

I’ll never forsake you. (also Joshua 1:5.)

I’ll never break my covenant with you. (Judges 2:1.)

I’ll never cast you out. (John 6:37.)

He’s never failed, He’s never abandoned us, He’s never turned His back when we turn ours on Him – in fact, have a look at 2 Timothy 2:13 –

if we are faithless, He remains faithful – 

for He cannot deny Himself.

and theologically, this is the wonder of what God did for us in Christ – He’s put every bit of stock in what Jesus did for us, not what we could do for Him – so even when we’re faithless, He’s faithful because otherwise, He’s denying Himself.

so think of everything He is – Savior, Healer, Provider, Friend, Deliverer, Liberator, Victor – and remember that He can never stop being any of those, it’s who He is and who He will always be.

[oak.]

changes are like winter

they test the deepest roots

they pause our growth, they cause us pain 

they bear a cold, harsh bite 

the days are long, the nights are dark 

the winds are ever strong 

they make our branches brittle, which bend and, at times, break 

they make us beg for mercy, ‘make it end, for Heaven’s sake!’ 

when it does, we always find – that hope is like the spring 

our branches have vigor, they regain their youth 

their strength returns to swing 

they sway with subtle, gentle breezes 

moving, yes, but firm 

the roots get deeper, have more reach 

as they rediscover life 

they feed into their habitat 

and ease their neighbor’s strife 

and when we hope, we’re stronger than we were the time before 

the winter took its vicious toll; took all the strength we had, and more. 

 

I’d like to think we’re not unlike a tall and healthy oak 

tested, yes, but broken? no

steadfast in our time 

facing every season with a mighty, willing spirit 

and never swept away 

in touch with our environments – and never left alone 

giving life to those around us 

and supported when we need it 

standing tall, and standing always 

never to be defeated

soil.

Jesus talked about what happens when seed – the Word – is sown.

you know, if you think about it a little bit, He’s saying that about 25% of the soil on which the Seed is sown allows the seed to take root and grow. the other 75% is trampled underfoot, eaten by birds, withers because of a lack of moisture, and is choked by thorns – or cares of the world.

Jesus paints an uphill battle for us.

but He still calls us to it – and i think it’s because it is a challenge. because there’s no guarantee that it’ll work. and He modeled this: He came and did everything He did – perfect life, unjust death, resurrection, etc – knowing that He’d get a small percentage of us.

 

but He did it.

and so should we, i reckon. after all, Jesus said that all of heaven rejoices over one sinner who comes home. so the tone of Jesus seems to be: it’s worth it.

every soul that comes home – even if it’s one in four, one in a hundred – is worth every bit of effort. if you serve in a church, then bless you. bless you for every door you open, every hand you shake, every knob you turn on a sound board, every string you strum, every note you sing, every square inch of carpet that you vacuum or tile that you sweep and mop, every roll of toilet paper that you change, every second of video you help produce, every bit of payroll you enter for church staff, every phone call you field, etc. and even if your service isn’t within the context of a church, but the capital-C Church, then you are also blessed – every kid you hang out with, every conversation you have over coffee to let someone tell their story, every inch of soil you displace to build a well to create access to water, every person you help access health care, every prayer you raise and any and every job i missed over this –

 

blessed are you.

 

i think it’s the church’s job to till the soil and water it. Paul actually talked about how one person plants, another waters, and God gives growth. this tells me that there’s something we can do to help that 25% of seed take root and bear fruit and help the kingdom grow exponentially. so, i think Jesus is – and this isn’t even the right way of articulating it – grateful for the work you do to prepare soil. because it brings joy to His heart to see sons brought to glory. it’s good work. keep on doing it.

vessels.

setting: a baptist church in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.

Date: June 18, 2017.

i knew i wouldn’t really be able to understand what the preacher would be saying – it was in Creole (as it should be) and while i could parse out little bits and pieces, he was speaking at a pace and a volume at which i couldn’t follow. i knew very soon that the next forty-five to sixty minutes would be time for me and God to chat.

i’ve not often had times exactly like that. it’s different from quiet time on my front porch in Kentucky, and it’s different from reading my bible and having worship music in my ears. there’s nothing like this: i’m in another place, a place that isn’t home, with people i don’t necessarily know well, with a preacher, ebbing and flowing in his tone, who sets the mood of the passage he’s preaching.

it is 2 Corinthians 4:7-9. it says:

but we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…

a piece of paper is handed to me from our translator before the sermon even begins. he isn’t going to translate the whole sermon for us – he’ll give us bullet points. so i start chewing on this passage in my head, mulling it over. i start formulating my own little sermon.

Lord, it’d been a while since i’d done that.

three years, actually – or just under.

i used to preach.

most of my readers know this. i’ve told the story before but i’ll tell the story again: i attended a church in Berea, KY for about eight years, and spent a good four of those heavily immersed in ministry: children’s ministry, worship ministry, church council, life groups, preaching. i loved it. i was good at it (at least, that’s what everyone told me) and i enjoyed it. i was entertaining ministry as a career path of sorts. we talked about me planting a church.

in 2014, i moved to Lexington and kept commuting for a while but at the end of the year and after lots of prayer, left my home church to find church in Lexington.

in the beginning of 2015, instead of going to a new church, i started enjoying my Sundays off – after all, they’d been work days for a long time and i already worked my regular job a lot, so Sunday was a day to really be off. i was less sharp spiritually. i was lonely. i dated a girl, and it didn’t go well – but there’s plenty chronicling that in older blogs.

by the end of 2015, i was a pretty broken vessel. some days, i couldn’t or wouldn’t look myself in the mirror – that guy i saw couldn’t have been the guy who held a microphone on a stage telling people about how much God loved them and how much He forgave and spurring them on to live a godly life. i kept telling myself (or hearing) that i’d blown it, that it’s one thing if you screw up and then you start following Jesus but if you know better – as in, you’d been a Christian for eight years and preached the gospel and stuff – then it’s worse.

i thought about all of this on that Sunday morning in Haiti. i thought about the people God uses. i thought about us all as vessels. rather, the Holy Spirit talked to me about how people are vessels. how we’re jars. jars of clay.

verse seven says we have this treasure in jars of clay. what treasure?

the Gospel, i swear it.

it must be.

[after all, 4:1-6 is talking about the light of the Gospel.]

but even if i didn’t know that, it’s the only thing that makes sense. we have the treasure of the message in a jar of clay. in other words, we are the jars.

and jars, well – jars get scratched, and jars occasionally crack. sometimes they get smashed to bits. sometimes they have a little puncture and they can’t hold what’s poured into them.

but we know God, and God is a Potter.

The Potter.

so God takes us – in all of our weakness, our mistakes, our failures, our inconsistencies – and He keeps putting the treasure in us, and He knows how to melt us back down and re-form us into a vessel that can carry the treasure.

see, the treasure – the Gospel – needs to be carried one way or another. and God isn’t in the business of throwing away His jars once they get a crack or a scratch or once they fall and hit the ground and break. even if He already remade it once or twice or three times or a hundred. nope – the treasure is in jars so that we know that the surpassing power belongs to God, not to us.

i realized in this morning with God that i always fancied myself a jar with a big ole crack, and that God had starting putting the treasure in this cracked jar and it kept leaking out – i’m gonna stop with the jar metaphor for now – the way this looked for me was me constantly protecting myself, constantly looking for a way to cover up or fix that crack. it looked like spending a lot of time by myself, protecting my time lest anyone come in the way of the healing process i felt i needed to undergo. it looked like not sharing my thoughts and not leading and not speaking up and not having any confidence in the Gospel because i knew it was just going to seep back out and i wouldn’t ever be able to confidently carry it. it looked like always calling myself broken. it looked like – instead of acknowledging the reality of a spiritual fight – just assuming that any mood i was in, any negative thought i had must have been a result of still being broken.

then God said,

you’re not broken anymore, son.

hold up.

that’s a name and a status there, Lord.

yeah, I know. because you’re My son and you are who I say you are and what I say you are – and you aren’t broken anymore. you’re My vessel.

i never really played sports or had a bad injury so i don’t know if this analogy would hold, but imagine you’re passionate about something – maybe you’re a pitcher on a baseball team – and you blew out your elbow and the doctor told you you’d never play again, but then you go get a second opinion a few months (or years) later and they say, “oh, that other doctor is crazy. you’re good to go. you can go throw today, even.”

that was me.

i never thought i’d lead a song of worship again. i never thought i’d be able to be seen as a leader in a small group again, or preach a sermon. but here was God, in a church, to His hot, sweaty son, saying: “yeah, I think you need to pick all of that back up and keep doing what I made you for.”

and friends, if you’ll allow me to share – and i hope to only share to the glory of God – the types and numbers of doors that have been opened since that day in Haiti.

i’ve been asked to officiate a wedding.

i got to baptize my friend.

i get to sorta help co-lead a small group.

i was asked to lead worship at a retreat in the fall.

i have a job interview on Monday to get paid to lead worship. really.

ok, so maybe it’s not that many, but it feels like a lot. i’m overwhelmed in the best way, because God is incredibly faithful.

people used to call me pastor Jeff. i never knew how to take it – i embraced it at times (my twitter handle used to be @pjpoling, the p being for pastor) and at other times i (although humbly) didn’t embrace it – but i think they meant it prophetically. i don’t know how to humbly say that there’s a call i’ve always had to fill and have been (and will be) unsatisfied if i don’t – to carry the gospel, to preach, to worship, to study Scripture, and to share with others. my only career ambition in life has been “work in a church” – in whatever capacity.

i share this story publicly for two reasons:

-to glorify God in my life

-to glorify God in yours. i think the reason i’m so excited about this story isn’t because all these great things happening for me – but because God is faithful, faithful, faithful to give His kids good things, He’s faithful to restore us, and faithful to give us a name. i don’t know who all reads what i write. but someone out there may be like me, whether in the same context of ministry or otherwise. afraid God won’t use you, afraid you blew it. i’d encourage you – He doesn’t call you broken. He accepts you in your brokenness, and then He makes you whole. that’s Who God is. that’s what He does. Max Lucado once said, “God loves you just the way you are – but He refuses to leave you that way.” i love that – because it’s true when we’re broken and it’s true when we’re whole. He keeps taking us on, from glory to glory and grace to grace.

 

you are His vessel. your name isn’t broken. your name is

 

 

SON.

exercise.

i don’t have quiet time every day.

i said it.

i realize it’s a common thing, actually – probably more common than not – nevertheless, in our age of sharing where you’re having your quiet time on instagram or posting scripture on facebook every day, there’s this underlying pressure (at least, i feel it) that every day, you should have a passage of scripture you’re thinking about.

and don’t get me wrong – none of what i’m going to say here is trying to insinuate that we should read the bible less or that it’s somehow not a good thing to read the bible – that would be utter nonsense.

that said, i don’t always have a passage of scripture that i’m thinking about every day. i don’t read the bible every day, not because i set out to not read, but often because i don’t set out to read. (there’s a difference.) i was talking with some friends in the car the other day about why this is the case – and i’m sure this isn’t ground-breaking, but – it can be so difficult to approach the bible when the setting just isn’t right.

and/or, when the setting seems to vary.

and/or, when the receptacle seems to vary from day to day.

that is, the word of God is unchanged and unchanging…

…but i ain’t.

i reckon i alluded to this a little bit in my last post – the idea that one day, i can be in a good mood and have gotten a good night’s sleep and i don’t have anywhere to be for a few hours and this is usually a great time for me to have quiet time. i usually have more time to chew on things and process it, to work through what it actually means and what it says about God and the truth may sink deep (and on a really good day i may actually memorize something!) and it’s good quiet time.

of course, not every day is like that.

some days i wake up after five hours of sleep sore from working outside the day before, and i walk into the kitchen and i’m out of coffee. and it’s raining or windy or cold outside so i can’t read the bible on the porch but my living room is messy and i’m thinking about how i need to clean it, and how i should text that guy about the thing i told him i was gonna do, and oh, i have to be somewhere in 45 minutes. then i can’t remember what i read yesterday (or last week) and fumble around for something to read and its something in some minor prophet but it doesn’t seem terribly relevant and although i know that the whole bible is about Jesus, i’m moody and tired and can’t think straight, so i say a quick prayer and say “thanks, God, for giving us Your word,” and i’ve had quiet time but i don’t feel any different.

and if i keep waiting for every day to be ideal, then i’ll never do it.

and if i keep waiting for every session of ‘quiet time’ to be revelatory or groundbreaking, then some days i’d have to carve out two or three hours.

some days, our receptors are off. sometimes, the lid is still on the jar when we try to pour water into it. sometimes, we try and water the plants without first turning the valve…

and this post isn’t about some secret to having great bible-reading. i DON’T HAVE ONE. do you?

no, i’m only writing (however inconclusively) to say that i reckon we should get to it anyway. that we should read anyway. and keep reading and keep praying and keep seeking the Lord, even when He seems silent or quietly whispering or talking conversationally or thunderingly. Paul tells Timothy that godliness is of value in every way. but he says that while comparing it to bodily exercise, and if i have the liberty, i have projected a couple of my own thoughts into this subject, given what i think about bodily exercise.

i run sometimes.

sometimes when i run, i feel great. i haven’t eaten in a bit so i don’t feel heavy, it feels nice outside, my shoes are good, the grass feels good, the music is just right. it’s a great run.

other times, i feel horrible. i feel heavy, sore, tired, winded, out of shape, out of practice. but for the most part, the run still works my (physical) heart in a positive way, and therefore its beneficial, even if i don’t like it that day. or even if i’m just indifferent.

maybe spiritual exercise is like that. we don’t always get some big revelation, we don’t always cry when we’re in the presence of God. the songs we sing don’t always feel right. maybe it doesn’t sink in. or it does – you are spurred on to something good, you are endowed with a fresh sense of peace, or kindness, or joy, etc. i’m beginning to think that it’s a both/and – its still good for us to read the Word, pray, worship, etc even when we don’t feel great afterwards. in the same way that not every day with a spouse is like your honeymoon, perhaps it is the case that not every day with God is going to be especially supernatural.