God is in the brokenness not on the other side of it.

I see displays of redemption all the time.  A person experiencing divorce walks the trail of bitterness and shattered dreams.  The person wonders whether or not he/she will ever experience love again.  Then, the unexpected happens when one date leads to another ending in love.  When the person looks back over the years God’s fingerprints run all through the pain.

I have cried with people over the painful consequences of an addiction.  Life falls apart.  Hopelessness abounds.  The future looks bleak. Yet, in the midst of the ashes, grace is experienced, habits are changed, and life is renewed.  When the person looks back through the valley God’s grace and presence are evident.

Over the years numerous people have walked into the church for the first time in years.  Life smacked them pretty hard.  They gave up on God.  They said I am done with Christ.  Yet, they found turning their back on Him did not ease their pain but only made it more poignant.  In time, their hearts were open again.  God wooed them back.  They came back to church, to worship, and to God.  Hope was restored again.

God is in the midst of the brokenness working out His redemption.  He is a second chance God.  In fact, it is oftentimes in the midst of the pain that we discover God’s character the most.  Only when we find ourselves at the end of our rope do we see the absolute necessity of God.  It crystallizes our priorities.  It reminds us of our frailty.  It drives us back to our Lord.

We know this to be true.  Yet, we so oftentimes forget this in the midst of the pain.  The moment suffocates us.  Emotions consume us.  Doubts prevail.  And we start to wonder if God is up to the task.  Worship becomes stale.  Prayer is a waste as God seems absent.  In those moments, it is easy to fall into a hole of self-pity and resentment.  Circumstances become a curse to us.

Yet, what if we looked at these moments differently?  What if we began to see pain as a means to experiencing grace?  What if we fully embraced the truth that redemption is only possible in the midst of brokenness?  What if we embraced the pain not because it is enjoyable but because the pearl of redemption is found in the midst of it?

Granted, it is not easy do so.  Yet, the alternative is that we wander in the dessert hating God and loathing ourselves rather than stopping and seeing redemption right in front of us.  God calls us to be still.  Stillness is easy when life is good; painfully unsettling when life is hard.  Yet, the stillness can create the space to see past the emotions and experience God’s redemptive act at work in us.  Pain and redemption are not opposites but intertwined as God’s means to more fully discover Him.  It requires what is hard – to stop, to reflect, and to see what He is doing in the midst of the tears.

Homelessness is not a statistic.

Chicago has been in a deep freeze.  There are days where I simply do not want to leave the comforts of my house.  I run to the car, shiver as it heats up then scamper back into the confines of a warm building.  It has been so cold that I have been putting on layers – amazing since I am a warm-natured person.  I have been known to wear shorts around the house in January – not so this year.  I am extremely thankful for heat, warm clothes, and blankets.

On Saturday, I helped with our church’s homeless ministry.  I enjoyed conversation with dozens of men and women scattered around parts of the church.  They were enjoying a place to sleep, a warm meal, and a free haircut.  They were resting in a place where they didn’t have to worry about getting kicked out or scorned due to their circumstances.  I am thankful my church is able to provide a place for those experiencing difficult times to find rest even if only for a short period of time.

One of the benefits of the ministry is it allows for close-up interaction with the homeless.  You can laugh and talk to them.  You can eat a meal with them.  You can hear how they are doing and experience love in return as they ask how you are doing.  There was an African-American lady at our most recent warming day.  She was a delightful person.  She smiled and laughed at life.  It was her first time at our homeless day.  She talked about how good God is in her life.  She expressed deep thanks for the church’s care for them.  Her clothes were tattered and worn.  It appeared as if she was wearing the hardships of life on her shoulders.  Yet, her spirit was not defeated.  She was hopeful for what 2016 might hold for her.  I was blessed by her as she provided a reality check on how to live grace through difficulty.

Monday was one of those days where it was brutally cold outside.  As I sit in the warm comforts of my office, I look out and think about those that are attempting to survive the hardships of this day.  At this moment, there are people who are walking from place to place simply to get to their next homeless shelter with the hope that they get a bed for the night.  And if they do not, they are forced to walk the streets attempting as best as they can to stay warm.  Sadly, more and more homeless shelters are shutting down due to lack of volunteers and finances.  The end result is the sad reality that more and more people are unable to find places to stay.

Oh, I pray that they find a place to stay for the night.  I pray that there will be enough beds for them to sleep in peace for an evening out of the brutal cold.  I pray I will not be so quick to complain about my own discomforts in light of those with far less.  The homeless are not statistics.  They are not a societal problem to be fixed.  They are people with feelings, personalities, hopes, dreams, difficulties, and heartbreak.  They are people preciously made in the image of God.  As I think about the warmth of my home, I am reminded that it is a gift not a given.  I am reminded of those that would give anything to be warm on a day like today.  I am reminded that each person that society looks over and dismisses has a name and loved by God.

Authenticity is king. Or is it?

Authenticity is king in today’s culture.  This is evident in politics as people gravitate towards Donald Trump because “he says it like it is.”  Part of the attraction is that we wish we could be so forthright.  After several NFL football games on Sunday, players took to Twitter and Instagram to share their anger over the referring during the game.  It was no holds barred commentary on the refs without any restraint.  I oftentimes see people spouting on Facebook deeply personal emotions or opinions without any regard for someone reading it.  It puts the reader in a bind as it is hard to challenge someone who is being authentic.  You are left with the typical response – “I know how you feel” or simply ignoring it as you feel it is best to keep your opinions to yourself.

Yet, I find this response to be somewhat conflicting.  The person is being authentic to you but you can only be authentic in return if you agree with them.  “I know how you feel” is an appropriate response.  “You should be angry” is permissible too.  But, it is not really ok to say “Are you seeing this correctly?”  And it is definitely not ok to say “You are reacting way too strongly to this situation.”  That could be the deathblow to the relationship.  I find this to be the sad reality of many relationships today.  It is ok to be authentic when you are venting but it is not ok to be authentic when you are challenging someone.

But, if relationships are genuine, they should be able to withstand two-way authenticity.  I should be able to graciously ask my friend whether their response is a reaction to some other issue in their life.  I should be able to post on their wall “You should pray about whether your assessment of the situation is correct.”  And, in some cases, I should have the courage to say “That decision is really not ok” or “You need to cool off.”  I think we would all agree that a true relationship should be able to withstand such honesty.  Yet, I wonder how many of our friendships characterize it.

As I think about my relationships, I find myself asking several questions:

  • Are my friendships (or my ego) strong enough to withstand a challenge?
  • Am I more interested in keeping peace in the relationships than seeing the person grow?
  • Is personal growth more important than spouting an opinion?
  • Am I willing to take the risk and get real with someone (and let them get real with me)?

These are the relationships that Christ modeled to us.  He spoke to us with “truth and grace” (John 1:14).  Jesus loved his friendships but he was not afraid to be honest in them.  Are we modeling such friendships?  Are we willing to risk some offense to speak truth into their life?  Are we ok sacrificing time in order to walk through how uncomfortable such a challenge involves?  Are we humble enough to genuinely listen when someone raises a concern realizing that person truly loves us?  Are we willing to be Christ to someone as well as allow them to be Christ to us?

Wearing Stress

The number one resolution for 2016 is “eliminating stress,” quickly followed by eating healthier and losing weight.  This order is determined by internet search patterns around the holidays.  It doesn’t surprise me as a majority of people are overstressed.  I feel it.  Others feel it.  I often counsel people on stress ranging from work expectations, family difficulties, or personal insecurity.  We live in a society where stress is the norm.  This is confirmed by the uptick of people using therapists to simply cope with life.  Counselors are wonderful.  They can help with intense difficulties in life.  Yet, it seems there is a move towards professional assistance in all matters of life including everyday stress.  It seems we are losing our ability to cope with life.

My wife is currently reading the book Blue Zone Solutions.  The book researches the seven regions in the world where people live the longest. The intent is to discern lifestyle patterns, eating habits, and other factors that lead to people living longer in these areas.  One section explores Okinawa.  A key reason for longevity of life is their ability to live without stress.  In their language, they have a word that means “wearing stress.”  It encapsulates a person who walks around with concerns and anxieties throughout the day.  Literally, the person is wearing stress.  I love the image.  I picture myself literally waking up in the morning putting on the stress of the previous day or that particular day.  I then carry it throughout the day only to bunch it in the corner.  The next day I put on the same stress again.  It might be a church concern.  Or, it might be an upcoming doctor’s appointment leading to anxiety over my health.  If it is particularly bad, I simply go to bed with my “stress clothes” on.  This is most certainly the reality for many people.  To be honest, many of us have been wearing the same stress clothes for weeks if not months.

This is not God’s desire for us.  He implores us to pour out our anxiety to Him (Philippians 4:4-7).  He doesn’t want us to have stress-filled lives that suck the joy out of the day.  He wants us to enjoy the blessings that surround us (and there are many) rather than looking backwards or forward at the concerns of yesterday or tomorrow.  He wants us to trust Him with the uncertainties of life, realizing that He has a wonderful purpose in store for us in 2016.  God wants us to know that He is perfectly capable to handle all our worries if we will simply give them to Him.  I think we know this in our minds.  Yet, in our hearts, we cling to all those worries believing somehow that dwelling on them will bring about resolution.

Yet, all it does is stink up our lives.  It is similar to us wearing the same clothes day after day without changing them or cleaning them.  It seems illogical for someone to do so.  Yet, this is exactly what we do with our worries with the result being a joyless, bitter, discouraged spirit.  As we start 2016, let’s embrace an Okinawan mindset and stop wearing stress by daily laying our concerns before Him and enjoying the goodness He has for us today.