Part 1: In the Hard Times, Where is God Located?

“Where is God?!”

It’s a common question.
One most often asked when we are confronted with the more ugly side of human existence. We ask about God’s presence or existence or involvement when we witness tragedy and disaster.
We also wonder about it when we go through really hard seasons of life.

Sometimes life is hard because the world is hard. Be it natural disaster, or uncontrollable economic forces, or disease or sickness.

Sometimes life is hard because people are hard. We are the victims of other people’s hatred or fear. We are beaten up, hurt, damaged by other humans.

Sometimes life is hard because we make it that way. Be it bad decisions or patterns of poor choices. Maybe we chose a path of destruction for ourselves, or we are consumed with selfishness, pride, or fear. And so we are in a hard time of our own making.

In all those cases it is natural to ask: where is God?

This is admittedly a HUGE topic. It deserves much more time and thought than what I’m about to give to it. So just know that this Three Part series is obviously not exhaustive. But it might serve to help you (if you are in a hard season of life) to find just a moment of Peace. To discover, if only briefly, where God might be in it all.

Part I: In the Hard Times, Where is God Located?
Ahead of us. Both inviting us to a better Way, and ready to welcome us home.

20 So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. -Luke 15:20

You know the story.
We call it the Prodigal Son story.

Son demands money, runs away, spends it wildly. When everything is lost and the son has hit bottom the son decides to return home. And where do we find the father?

Standing on the porch waiting.
With eyes wide open, toward the horizon, never giving up hope that his son would come home.
Anxiously and excitedly anticipating the slightest hint that his son is done with his prodigal living.
Running. Running out to meet the son.
Embracing. Holding.
Taking by the hand and welcoming the son back home.

Where is God when life gets hard?

Ready and waiting for you to say, “okay, enough is enough. I can’t keep running. I can’t keep wasting my life. I don’t want to live this way anymore. I’m lonely. Scared. Exhausted. I’m ready to change. I HAVE to change.”

That’s called repentance.
And when we just start to show the smallest glimmer of turning-around, there is God.

BAM! Right there, with open arms and an open heart, ready to take us home.

‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

For those hard seasons of life that come about at our own doing, because of our lack of wisdom, or lack of courage, or lack of listening to those in our life who are worried about us, I see God at the edge of the cliff of the valley we’ve made for ourselves just biting Divine nails, anxious for us to wake up.

We are invited to a better way of living.
This was (and remains) the call of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus offers a way of living that John described as a “life of the ages” (or, eternal life). He also calls it an abundant life. This is Life the way it is supposed to be lived. The most human life. The Divine life.

The life of, well, Jesus. The God-man.

When we make a mess of our lives (which is often) God’s posture towards us is one of invitation. Of beckoning and calling. God is ahead of us, pulling us forward towards greater peace and love and beauty and hope.

And the millisecond that we make a move, no matter how small, towards coming back home, the God-of-all runs to meet us. To cover us in Love. To bear our shame for us.

In the Prodigal Story the father runs out to meet his son. The picture here is that the father runs out to meet his son before the son can enter the city and take the long walk-of-shame home. Instead, the father meets the son outside the city walls and adorns him with gifts of the father’s blessing, and then leads his son home. Taking on the shame that ought to have been the son’s.

What a beautiful picture of where God is when life is hard.

Ahead of us. Inviting us to a more beautiful, abundant life.
And also ready to swoop us up, clothe us in grace, and welcome us back home… no matter how far we’ve wandered.

The Squishy Stage

A Little Bit Less

My wife and I have done our fair share of child raising. We currently own the rights to 4 boys that were created by us and, by extension, are now being raised by us. So what I’m about to say next might (to the un-parental ears, especially) sound a bit harsh, but I’m declaring that I’ve earned enough cred to say it anyways.

Our youngest son, Huck, is at that age (or, more accurately, “developmental stage”) where we like him again.

You see, generally speaking (and every parent is different, for sure), newborns pop out and are so adorable, smell so good, and the miracle of life is still so fresh in the air, that you can’t help BUT like the little wrinkle ball. However, as they grow bigger, and your sleeping chart grows smaller, you slowly start to like them a little. bit. less.

It isn’t only the sleep deprivation, however.

It’s how they consume all of what used to be called “your life.” All the things you normally did, at a normal pace, have been forever altered or eliminated entirely.

And, mind you, I’m just the Daddy speaking. All of this gets amplified in our situation when you’re the Mommy, and you’re breastfeeding. Seriously.

Nonetheless what ends up happening is, even though you absolutely adore and love your little tiny human, you find yourself just not liking them as much.

But then…

Oh then…

They hit the SQUISHY STAGE.

The Squishy Stage

It may go by a different name in your household, but for us we call it The Squishy Stage. And this is the stage where you find yourself, almost on a daily basis, wanting to just reach down and snatch your little bundle of cuddleliciousness and squish the beejeezus out of them.

And you find yourself liking your child again, thanks to their newfound squishiness.

They are cute. And cuddly.

And squishy.

When Jae (our 3rd son) reached this stage, he just adopted it as one of his many names. We would routinely call him Squish, Squishy, or, my personal favorite, Squish Bucket.

The most magical part of the Squishy Stage is their cheeks.
Their cheeks just radiate with squeezable sweetness.

You hold them and you squish them.
You kiss them and you smush your nose in to them.

It’s beautiful.

The Down Side

However there’s something surprisingly frustrating with the Squishy Stage.

It’s kind of like how you can see a photograph, or a painting, of a gorgeous landscape. Truly breathtaking in its ability to capture the beauty found in nature. And yet, even after staring at it and appreciating it as much as you can, you ultimately find yourself just not quite satisfied. And you think, “if only I could see the REAL thing.”

Or, it’s kind of like when you have a cold, and it’s one of those colds that completely knocks out your sniffer. And you can’t taste ANYthing. But you sit down to this amazing meal and stick a fork full of what you KNOW is really, really good food… but you just can’t taste it. It’s just not satisfying.

During the Squishy Stage, when you’re pressing your cheek firmly against the radiating squeeziness of your child’s cheek, there is this sense that you just

can’t

get

close

enough.

It’s as though that chamber in your heart, reserved for the exponentially expanding quantity of love required to raise littles, is bursting at the seams, but your smashing proximity to your littles’ cheeks just still isn’t enough.

I wonder if that’s why, according to the late Maurice Sendak, the Wild Things said to Max, “we’ll eat you up, we love you so!”

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at January 7, 12.06 PM

Because when you just can’t get close enough cheek-to-cheek the only other option appears to be to consume them entirely. That’s the only way to get closer.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

This sense that there are moments with a loved one where you just can’t get close enough to truly satisfy the demands of your love-exploding heart?

That’s what the Squishy Stage does to me.

Closer

This past Sunday at church we sang “Closer” by Steffany Frizzell. And for me this song gives a voice to that ache in our soul when we just can’t get close enough.

Your love has ravished my heart
And taken me over, taken me over

And all I want is to be
With you forever, with you forever

So pull me a little closer
Take me a little deeper
I want to know your heart
I want to know your heart

‘Cause your love is so much sweeter
Than anything I’ve tasted
I want to know your heart
I want to know your heart

Honestly, I don’t really know what “closeness” to God looks like. Or, for that matter, feels like.

Sometimes I think I “feel” close.
Other times it feels like there is great distance between me and the Divine.

And some days (I’ve had a lot of them lately) I feel like I want… no, I NEED, God to pull me a little closer.

I want to find some sort of connection with my God that satisfies. That is enough. That is good.

I want to know God’s heart, and to feel known by God.

My hunch is this: as much as right now Huck is in the Squishy Stage, and I just can’t seem to get close enough to him, I get the feeling that this is how God ALWAYS feels towards me. That God’s heart is always expanding and exploding with a love that constantly wants to pick me up and squeeze me, hold me, squish me.

I may be wrong.
But I think I’m right on this.

So if you have a little one, or a loved one, and today you give them a squeeze and think to yourself, “I’d eat them up, I love them so,” then just remember: that’s how God feels about you.

You are loved.

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Christmas as a Pastor

Christmas was a couple weeks ago.
I’m sure you knew that.

In our house it meant things like decorating cookies (or, more precisely, decorating the table… since that’s where MOST of the sprinkles end up), getting a tree that is small enough to sit on top of a table (out of reach of the two year old) but large enough to sustain our decorations, and bouncing back and forth between Kate’s Pandora station (Indie Holidays) and mine (Christmas Standards). It meant things like finding out which neighborhoods around here are the best for looking at lights, wondering if this would finally be the year when Dad (that’s me) would hang some lights on our house (it wasn’t), and scrolling Netflix to see if they’ve added any new Christmas movies (not so much). It meant things like almond roca from Kate’s grandma, taking uber advantage of Amazon Prime’s free 2-day shipping, and brand new Christmas jammies for the whole family.

We love Christmastime in our house. It’s a special time of the year.

Of course, right alongside that, since I’m a Pastor, it also meant…

Two weeks straight of being gone almost every night, getting ready for a big Christmas production. Nights of Christmas fun being missed out on because of late night church-meetings. And having to be here, on Christmas Eve, almost all day and night, to put on our Christmas Eve Services.

Now, lest you read that previous paragraph and mistake it for complaining (which it wasn’t), I’m not complaining. Seriously. I love what I do, and I love doing what I do during the Holiday Season.

But, as every Pastor Family knows, holidays just look different most of the time. In large part it comes with the job, and my wife and I have navigated those waters well over these past 10 years.

And yet, each time this past season that I started to feel a bit curmudgeon-y about Church and Christmas, I was reminded how much my family and I are loved by our faith community.

For instance, this year people in our church blessed our family with:

-Tickets to LegoLand
-Gift cards for new clothes
-Movie Passes
-Extra holiday cash
-Wine and other festive drinks (Thank you Adahber!)
-More holiday cash
-Encouraging notes at just the right time
-More holiday cash
-And more

For a family of 6, in Southern California, living off of one salary, it can be daunting going in to the Christmas Season. Thinking about gifts, and Santa, and stockings. But every year (and THIS year, especially) Kate and I are gobbled up in to the loving embrace of a church family that understands just how far a little bit of material-love can go at Christmas time.

And so this Christmas we got to spoil our kids with far more gifts than we normally would. Kate and I got to have fun shopping for each other when normally it’s an afterthought (or not at all). All because people in our church, multiple people from multiple cross sections of the church, at different times and in different ways, reached out and loved on us.

I’m not sure, exactly, what the point of this post is.

Other than to say this:

Dear Missiongathering Family, from the bottom of Kate and mine’s hearts, we say THANK YOU for your gifts this year. They blessed us more than you could know. And we needed it, more than you could know.

Being a Pastor at Christmas can be hard sometimes.
But I wouldn’t change it for anything. Because it is in the CHURCH where often times we can most witness the God-who-is-with-us: Emmanuel.

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The Boys with New Toys

Are You Happy?

Happiness is a Funny Thing, Isn’t it?

Look back on the past week, and see if you can identify a moment in that week when you can say, “there, right there, I was truly and genuinely happy.”

Chances are, if you’ve had a decent week, you could probably find a handful of moments. Especially seeing as how we just had the epicness of the Winter Holiday Season.

But it’s also very possible that this exercise could prove difficult. We might have to really think hard, to try and recall, when was a moment where I was happy? Was I happy this week??

And even if we could come up with a list of, say, half a dozen moments of happiness, we still must then ask the question: okay, then what about the REST of the week? Why wasn’t I happy then?

Why does it seem like our moments of genuine happiness are the exception? They are those moments that stand-out, because they aren’t our norm?

Happiness is a funny thing.

We are Happy When we are Happy

Christine Carter, PhD, is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center. She says this about happiness:

Happiness is a tremendous advantage in a world that values performance and achievement.

On average, happy people are more successful than unhappy people at both work and love. They get better performance reviews, have more prestigious jobs, and earn higher salaries. They are more likely to get married, and once married, they are more satisfied with their marriages.

Happy people also tend to be healthier and live longer… it also turns out that uber-happy people tend to have more friends and be luckier in love.

What is generally agreed upon is this: happiness is preferred to unhappiness.

Happiness is a good thing. If given the choice, the average person would prefer to be happy. We are happy when we are happy.

What is generally not-agreed up on is this: what is it that makes a person happy?

Sure, there are general principles that most people would agree with. For instance, if you are a person of gratitude and appreciation, you’re generally more happy. If you’re content with what you have, you’re generally more happy. If you focus on the positives in life, you’re generally more happy. And so on…

But if it were that simple then bookshelves and online shopping carts wouldn’t be overflowing with self-help books on “How to Find Happiness.”

Happiness is a multi-billion dollar business, when you consider those who are trying to help others become happy and those who themselves are in the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness is a funny thing.

The Way of Love

A while back a friend of mine gave me this little pocket sized book called “The Way of Love,” by Anthony De Mello.


De Mello was a Jesuit priest and a psychotherapist who wrote and spoke extensively on spirituality, and “The Way of Love” is a collection of some of his finall thoughts on the ultimate questions regarding love.

In one such chapter, De Mello contemplates this idea of happiness. He opens by saying:

Take a look at the world and see the unhappiness around you and in you. Do you know what causes this unhappiness? You will probably say loneliness or oppression or war or hatred or atheism. And you will be wrong. There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them. Because of these false beliefs, you see the world and yourself in a distorted way.

A rather bold claim, isn’t it?
That there is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head.

In my more conservative-Christian days, I’d read a sentence like that and presume to know where De Mello was going. I’d assume (and nod my head in agreement) that he is about to suggest the importance of correct doctrine. That we are happy when we believe the right things about God and about Jesus. That we are happy when our doctrine is in good order, when we believe in the deity of Jesus, the literal resurrection, the doctrine of justification by faith, the return of Christ, heaven, hell, etc, etc, etc.

However, thankfully that is not the direction that De Mello goes. And honestly, some of the most unhappy people I know are the ones who are consumed with “getting it right.” With protecting and defending correct-doctrine. But anyways…

He goes on to say that when we look at ourselves and the world around us, and we see the overwhelming imbalance of unhappiness over happiness, then we should be suspicious of the programming and the beliefs that we all hold in common. And yet, the tricky thing is, we have also been programmed not to suspect or doubt these assumptions. Further, if we are unhappy, we’ve been trained to blame ourselves and not our programming, not the cultural and inherited ideas and beliefs.

I think it’s safe to say that, in reality, most people are so brainwashed that they don’t even realize how unhappy they are. “Like the man in a dream who has no idea he is dreaming,” says De Mello.

I’m reminded of The Matrix, and how humans are plugged in to the machine and programmed to assume that the world around them is real when of course it is not. And so it is with the false beliefs in our head, and how they make us unhappy, but how we are programmed not to question the beliefs in the first place.

Choose It

As you kick off your new year I wonder if you’d pause today just long enough to ask yourself: what is just ONE potential false belief that has been programmed in to my brain, that is blocking me from being happy?

When I look like “this,” I will be happy.
When I am with “him/her,” I will be happy.
When I make just “X” amount more money, I will be happy.
When I acquire that house/car/shirt, I will be happy.
When I get a new job, I will be happy.
When I kick “this” habit, I will be happy.
When I get “him/her” out of my life, I will be happy.
When I have less debt/bills, I will be happy.

And so on.

My wife got us a piece of art a while back, and it hangs in our house. It says, “We tend to seek happiness, when happiness is a choice.”

It isn’t always easy. In fact most of the time it’s hard, and it takes work.

But you can do it. You can start choosing happiness. Like De Mello says,

“There is not a single moment in your life where you do not have everything you need to be happy.” 

Happy New Years, everybody.

Louis C.K. and Cellphones; Jesus and Wine

If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you borrow 4 minutes from your day to listen to this mini-sermon delivered by comedian Louis C.K. on Conan.

In it, he reflects on the parenting decision to NOT let his girls have cell phones. Which, in a (crude) nutshell he says that parents often struggle with the idea of, “well, all the other kids have a phone… so my kid has to, too.”

To which Louis says, how about you let YOUR kid be the better example to the other kids. “Just because the other stupid kids have phones, doesn’t mean my kid has to be stupid in order to not feel weird.”

A bit harsh, but that’s Louis.

The real gold comes, though, when he unpacks how he feels in general about cell phones. About how they are toxic, and how they shield us from dealing with that existential angst in our soul that threatens to remind us that we are alone.

We are so afraid of being alone, admitting that we have a “forever emptiness” in us (as Louis says), that we turn to the crutch of our phone to instantly “connect” with someone else.

Which is all well and good, and I think just THAT naming of reality makes this video worthwhile. Because yes, my cell phone is what I turn to when I don’t want to just sit with “me.”

Yesterday I walked my three oldest boys down to a block party. We arrived at the tail end of the party, so the bouncy house was largely vacant. My boys wasted no time in filling that empty space with screams, yells, Power Ranger kicks, and other such shenanigans. I meandered over to where I heard my name being called… whispered… summoned.

The free beer.

Filling up my cup with a nice Pale Ale from Thorn St Brewery I surveyed the party area and recognized no one. Content with this discovery (because I am, after all, socially awkward at times and definitely not good at small talk or meeting new people) I took my cold draft and walked back to the bouncy house.

Though I WANTED to go inside and join my boys, I decided they were having too much fun to risk being kicked out because of me. So, instead, I sat down on the sidewalk and just watched them bounce.

And you know what my hands INSTANTLY did, once I sat down?

Likely the same thing YOURS do: reach in my pocket for my phone.

Sadness then hit me when I unlocked my phone and discovered I only had 10% battery left. I thought, “dang… I don’t know how long I’ll be here, so I better conserve this 10%. Who knows how long it will have to last me. I’ll check email and FB now… wait a few minutes… then check football scores… wait a few more minutes, then maybe post an Instagram…”

I didn’t want to just sit. Alone. With just ‘me.’

Let alone (obviously) go out and mingle with people.
Yeesh.

So yeah, Louis, I’m tracking with you. Cell phones medicate us from having to just be with “us.”

But he doesn’t stop there.

He tells a story about driving down the road, alone, and suddenly becomes overwhelmed with a sense of sadness. When he felt it coming his FIRST instinct was to grab his phone and start texting people. To connect with someone. To not feel alone, or sad.

Instead, he rejected that instinct, and chose instead this:

“Just be sad. Just let the sadness… stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck…. I pulled over and I just cried… I cried so much… and it was beautiful… sadness is poetic, you’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings because of it. When you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies. It has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness… and because we don’t want that first bit of “sad,” we push it away [with things like our cell phones]. (editor’s note: He mentions other things we do to distract ourselves, and it’s funny, but I don’t feel like typing it. HA!)

And I just find all that so absolutely, beautifully, and truthfully profound.

We don’t want to be sad.
We don’t want to feel alone.
And our phones are wonderful happy devices that connect us instantly.

But more than just phones, we live life like this. We try our damnedest to avoid feeling sad. And when we do, we certainly don’t elect to “just stand there and let it hit us like a truck.”

If you need confirmation about this human reality, just listen to the audience when Louis is talking.
You can hear the crowd laughing as Louis is telling his story. And yes, partly because he’s funny, but mostly you can sense it’s a nervous laughter.

It’s the type of laughter when you’ve just been exposed, and it’s uncomfortable.

But we do that, don’t we?
We avoid facing the full trauma of our sadness.
We numb ourselves.

I’m reminded of Jesus on the cross. In Mark’s gospel he tells the story of Jesus’ humiliating walk to Golgotha. And shortly after Simon of Cyrene is grabbed from the crowd to carry the cross for Jesus, Mark says, “The soldiers offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh to dull his pain, but he refused it.” (Mark 15:23 The VOICE)

Jesus had the option to take the edge off.
To dull the pain a bit.
To medicate.
To grab the cell phone and avoid feeling sad.
Alone.

But he refused it.

And I think that point is important because Jesus’ knew on some profound level that he had to fully be present and fully face the upcoming sadness. He needed to face the full force of the trauma that was happening.

To truly absorb the weight of humanity’s collective wickedness, to fully expose the myth of violence, to ensure a defeat of the powers of sin and death, and to thoroughly demonstrate the weak power of love, mercy and sacrifice, Jesus had to just be sad.

This full engagement with the trauma allowed then for a complete and total break through on the other side.

Resurrection.

And resurrection can ONLY come after we have endured the tragic.
Resurrection comes after death.

In the words of Louis, “happiness comes rushing in to meet the sadness.”

But the happiness won’t come if we refuse to engage the sadness.

Resurrection life becomes merely a half-dead, barely-living, zombie type of existence if it isn’t first accompanied by a full embracing of the tragic.

I wrote this post a while back about the experience of losing something. And I concluded with these words, and I still like them, and it sort of applies to this post:

If we lose something in life that was dear to us, and we are sincerely led to believe that God was involved in the process of initiating or directing this loss, then let us choose to first engage with that loss. Experience it. Know it. Let it stare at us in the depths of our soul and let us not move on to quickly. But when we do, when we begin to move from crucifixion to a time of resurrection, then let us begin to believe that no matter what comes next, whether or not what we initially lost will ever be replaced, that we will be better because we engaged with Christ and participated in his crucifixion and are now living in his resurrection. And that, ultimately, is life.

Thank you, Louis, for making accessible such a beautiful spiritual truth.

Be sad, my friends, when sadness comes. Don’t reach too quickly for the cell phone, don’t numb the pain with wine and myrrh. Like Louis said, “you’re lucky to live sad moments.”

Because the eternal life (abundant life, life of the ages, or, as Louis names it, happiness) that is waiting for you on the other side is infinitely better than numbness, avoidance, or pretending all-is-fine.

What are Prayings for?

The other night I was tucking our oldest two in to bed and I said, “okay boys, lets say our prayer.”*

To which Tai replied,

Dad, what are prayings for?

Setting aside a moment in my brain to chuckle at the word “prayings,” I am struck by the maturity of this question. One which I’ve essentially been asking for about the past 10 years. And since I have yet to come up with a good answer, I decided to go Socratic on my son.

That’s a good question, Tai. Why do YOU think people pray?

He pauses, but only for a beat, before answering my question,

So they can keep on living for a few more days?

Brilliant.

That might be the best answer to what “prayings” are for that I’ve ever heard.

I said,

That’s a great idea, Tai. I’ll bet lots of people pray so that they can keep living for just a couple more days. Why else do you think people pray?

Almost immediately,

To make peace with God?

Yup.

So, in summary, I have discovered that my 10 years of searching for the point of “prayings” could have been avoided had I only asked my 7 year old.

We pray so that we can survive.
Keep on living.
Keep on making it another day.

And we pray so that we can find peace with the Divine.
Make and maintain a connection with God.
Be reminded of Peace.

I love it.

What about you?
What do YOU think prayings are for?

- – – – – – – – – – -

*The Prayer that we pray with our boys at bedtime is a modification of the Lord’s Prayer that my wife wrote several years ago. It goes as follows:

Our Father (or Mother, we alternate) in Heaven, you are good.
Your way is perfect.
Let your way be done on earth just as like in Heaven.
Please give us all we need to live each day.
Forgive us when we hurt you
And help us to always forgive others when they hurt us.
Keep us close to goodness, mercy, and love, always.
Your Kingdom is Forever.
Amen.