The Story We’re all Trying to Remember

The man looks confused. Addled. Perplexed. “Have you lost something again?” a pretty young girl asks as she passes by. He is known for this in the town. For losing things. “Well,” he stammers, “I believe I have. The problem is, I can’t remember what.” He sighs. “Oh well, I’m sure it’ll come to me.”

The scene is from Disney’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake, and the “pretty girl,” of course, is Belle. The confused man, we later learn, is none other than Mr. Potts, and what is it he has lost? We don’t know until the very end of the movie when his identity is revealed, and then we are stunned— because the thing he has lost is his family! Mrs. Potts, the charming teapot, is his wife, and chip, that spunky little tea cup, his son. But all this he has forgotten.

Pastor and New York Times Best-selling author Timothy Keller points out that there are strikingly similar themes that recur in many of our most beloved stories throughout history. He suggests these patterns point to a ‘bigger narrative,’ a bigger story behind and beyond the ones being told, and that their presence is a clue, an unconscious nod to something these authors sense we have lost, ‘the problem is, we can’t remember what.’ I found some of these themes in three shows I watched just this week. One came from an action-packed Naval drama on TNT, one from a well-bred BBC special, and one, coincidentally, from Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast
There are lots of things we could touch on here, but what jumped out at me most was the curse and its domino effect on the entire cast. The curse on the Prince and his household does not stop with the household— in one way or another, it touches the whole village, the least effect of which is causing the people to forget about the presence of such a magnificent castle and its occupants nearby. But I was most interested in how the curse affected the Prince himself. Condemned to live as a beast until he can learn to love, he is ultimately freed by the love of another. Yes, we see that Belle says that she loves him at the very end of the movie, and shows it with a kiss and with tears, and that then the curse is actually broken. But I think it is obvious to anyone who has carefully watched their interactions that she loves him long before that final moment. I think it is obvious that she loved him first.

Yes, the Beast loved Belle enough to let her go, but to get there he had first to be shown love by her. Beauty takes the first step, not him. In the beginning of the movie the Prince is rebuked by the Enchantress for basing beauty on appearance alone, but it is Belle, in the end, who does the real work of loving beyond and beneath the surface, or better yet, by loving based on who and what she is rather than by who and what he is. The miracle is not that a beast fell in love with a beautiful girl. The miracle is that She, Beauty, loves a beast. His heart is only changed in response to hers.

The Last Ship
In this action-packed 3-season drama about a U.S. Navy war ship crew that saves the world after a global pandemic, themes of redemption are common. But perhaps the most poignant episode I’ve seen yet involved the crew discovering that the man next in succession for the presidency of the United States was still alive, although allied now with evil forces bent on taking over what is left of the world. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the death and the horror of the plague that killed millions, the man has forgotten who he is. But the captain of the Navy ship hasn’t. And so, out of respect for the office, he and his crew “kidnap” the rightful president out from his corrupt surroundings and bring him instead aboard the safety of the ship. He is brought against his will and resists the kindness of his rescuers until the ship chaplain realizes that his problem lies deeper. ‘He needs to be given a greater narrative than the one he’s bought into to cope with his pain,’ the man wisely observes. In the end he is shown the lie he has believed, and that the truth, though difficult to face, offers a much greater purpose and hope for him moving forward. By the end of the episode he is ‘set free,’ given the best room on the ship (lovingly redecorated to resemble the Oval Office), and restored to a place of dignity, honor and respect.

Cranford, a delightful 5-episode field trip into the world of a 19th century English town, follows many major story-lines and a few minor ones. What ended up surprising me though, as we watched the final episode, was that one of the more subtle story lines actually stole the show. With most focus going to the very lovable and busy-bodied women of the town, it was the stern but big-hearted estate manager and a young pauper from a roadside hovel whose story won out. The manager, a widower who never had children, takes the desperate young boy under his wing after catching him poaching on the lands of his employer. But then, in a tragic accident, the manager dies quite suddenly. What nobody knew was that this humble man had actually accrued quite a vast estate in his lifetime and wished to leave it all to the boy, but didn’t see how it would benefit him in time for his education and upbringing. It is only as he is dying from his wounds that he sees his opportunity and is able to draft a last will and testament naming the young pauper his heir. To the surprise of everyone, the boy is transformed overnight from one of the poorest in the town to one of the richest.

A Greater Narrative
Justice and judgment, home and exile, self-sacrifice and redemption—why is it that stories with these themes show up so often in our movies and literature and tend to move us the most, even though, as Timothy Keller puts it, “we may be secular materialists who believe truth and justice, good and evil, are complete illusions?” Nevertheless, he concludes, “in the presence of art or even great natural beauty, our hearts tell us another story.”

Photo credit, Jimme Mince

The chaplain from The Last Ship is right. There is a greater narrative, and we need to know what it is in order to move forward in life. Who we are, who we’re supposed to be, how we got here, how we get back— there is a greater story, and it’s one we’re all trying to remember. It shows up in our books and our movies and our fairy tales so frequently precisely because it is vital to us, precisely because it goes to the root of our ultimate well-being. There is a Beauty (Ps. 27:4) and there is a beast (Gen. 6:5). There is a curse leveled against us as consequence of a great crime (Rom. 3:23; 5:12), a debt that must be paid (Rom. 6:23a), an impossible task to be achieved (Lev. 18:5; 1 Peter 1:16; Matt. 5:48), but at a cost so high there is left no doubt the last petals of our days will fade and fall before we can ever hope to achieve it. And yet, there is hope— because there is also a Hero. One who saves by His great Grace, doing the work for us (Jn. 3:16; Matt. 5:17). One who redeems our beastly selves by taking on the great curse for us (2 Cor. 5:21), by taking the first step for us, by loving first for us (1Jn. 4:19), loving to the point of death (Rom. 5:8; Phil. 2:8) so that we who are paupers might become sons, heirs to a great and staggering inheritance (Rom. 8:17), heirs to a future full of dignity and honor and respect.

As I was finishing this up today I stumbled across one last theory that has circulated out there about Beauty and the Beast.  It suggests, in short, that the curse touching the town was not just forgetfulness, but also a sort of ‘stuckness,’ that the whole town, along with the Prince and his castle, were actually stuck in a time loop. This would explain, beyond just the humdrum routine of a small town, why Belle could observe the town every day and sing: “Ev’ry morning just the same, since the morning that we came.” The town is stuck— stuck in routine, stuck in the past, stuck in a curse, and the implication is, stuck in such a way that they are doomed to endlessly loop through the same mistakes again and again and again that have gotten them there in the first place until the end of time.


Unless someone from the outside intervenes. Someone from outside the town. Someone from outside the curse. “Have you lost something again?” Belle asks the confused Mr. Potts. “Well, I believe I have. The problem is, I can’t remember what. Oh well, I’m sure it’ll come to me.” What he cannot know as he smiles and turns away is that all the things he has loved and lost are to come back to him through the girl right before him. Through the one who has come from outside.



Hold That Thought

Two weeks ago Saturday, just about the time I was headed home for an early lunch, a very tenacious and completely insane 31 year-old man clawed his way over the summit lip of the nearly 3,000-foot granite wall known as El Capitan. He had climbed the entire distance without any ropes.

It took the man 3 hours and 56 minutes to do this. He wore nothing but a red t-shirt, cutoff nylon pants, a pair of climbing shoes, and a small bag of chalk. His name, in case you haven’t heard of him yet through a thousand shared posts flooding Facebook, is Alex Honnold.

In addition to a decade-plus of climbing experience, Honnold trained for this particular feat for more than a year. He was obsessive about details; he had to be—his very life depended on it. Hours were spent hanging from his fingertips to strengthen his grip. Two and even one-armed pull-ups were a common part of his daily routine. Additional hours were dedicated each day to rehearsing and perfecting hand and foot placement sequences along the route of his ascent until he could do them in his sleep. He studied every inch of the wall, rappelling down its face to mark key holds along the way with chalk. He took notes. He studied the weather. He did all of this so that, when the day finally came, he was able to accomplish what no other human being before him had ever done— with nothing but his hands, his feet and a steely courage to guide him, he was able to find purchase enough in the cracks and bumps and matchbox-thin ledges of El Capitan to make it safely to the top.

After reading of Honnold’s feat I was thinking, somewhat dryly, that all too often my brain is very much like the sheer granite face of El Capitan— truth, wisdom, clarity, understanding— all of these things struggle bravely to find any purchase there. They just don’t stick. It’s bad enough that I can’t even remember half the time which of our three phone numbers belongs to my cell phone—how am I expected to meaningfully gather and organize and retain any of the really important stuff about life?

That we live in an information age is an overwhelming understatement. I think I vaguely recall reading somewhere that the average farmer, even just 100 years ago, had access in his entire lifetime to the equivalent of the information found in just one of our Sunday morning newspapers. And yet, even as I type this, my 12 year-old son leans over my shoulder and asks, “What is a newspaper?” He is not serious, of course, but just about. We’ve never had a newspaper delivered to our home. Because the Internet. Because with the “click” of a button, from anywhere in the house, without any delivery boys or books or radio broadcasts or even wires, this same son of mine can access data and records and news and facts that our poor average farmer could never have dreamed of in a million years. If you could have told someone, even 50 years ago, that most people would one day possess a supercomputer so powerful it was capable of running the world, and so small it could fit in the back pocket of your Levi’s, but that we would mostly use them to play games and take pictures of ourselves—no one would have believed you. And yet here we are. But I digress.

The thing is, there is just so much. So much information and data and content coming at us all the time that it just gets overwhelming and we end up either shutting down or we go crazy trying to keep up. Or we vacillate constantly between the two. But regardless, we all seem to have suffered from a decreasing attention/retention span. Or at least I have. Maybe it’s just me. Because it feels to me like the incessant monsoon of information has scoured all the handholds right off my brain, has left the surface of my mind dangerously smooth, like polished glass, like granite. So that, when something Really True or really important or really meaningful comes along and tries to get a grip on me, to get a hold of my life, unless it is truly tenacious, it will slip right off and fall to its death by the wayside. And I worry about this.

I worry because I know that even though I have access to So Much, some things are still more important than other things. That some things matter more. That there are bad things, and there are good things, and that then there are also The Best Things. And I desperately want those things to stick.

I want to remember the way that man’s face looked after he prayed to receive Christ.

I want to remember my Dad’s answers to the God questions I peppered him with as a child.

I want to remember all the Proverbs I read, not just the funny ones about the dog returning to his vomit.

I want to remember what I studied in college and all those expensive Seminary courses, all the definitions, all the history.

I want to remember all the really good books. All the inspiring quotes. All the best comebacks.

I want to remember all the answers to prayer.

All God’s promises.

All His principles, and His presence, and His power.

But I forget.

And then, you know, I get these flashes of insight, these moments of terrifying clarity where I see how much I’m missing, or how much I’ve already forgotten, and the horror, the horror is just too much. And immediately I slip into one of the two modes, either wanting to give up and disengage and quit trying to learn and grow and remember altogether or the opposite, I frantically try to catch up, and keep up and just know enough of the right things to be okayBecause, see, I know that I need to make myself malleable, to be a sponge, to diligently and firmly bend my mind and  heart towards Truth, to make myself receptive to the most important things, the truest things, the things of God. I hear this reminder in Proverbs 7, among other places:

“My son, keep my words
and treasure up my commandments with you;
keep my commandments and live;
keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend…”

But friends… I am no Alex Honnold. Most of the time, though I do often find myself hanging by my fingertips, it is not on purpose. And I won’t last for hours. I’m doomed to slip, to forget, to let go and fall away blindly from the things that matter most. God’s commandments and His teaching and His wisdom and His insight, all these things should cling to you and I with a fiercer and firmer grip the longer we live in the presence of God. But in the end, the best I seem able to offer God is a stubbornly shallow hold on my life. In the end, I find that my mind is a dangerously smooth granite wall.

Now there are, of course, those steps I can take to up the odds of ascent, to give the things that matter a ‘leg up’ when it comes to sticking with me. I could, for instance, watch a whole lot less Netflix and fill my mind instead with the contents of really good, old books. I could get up earlier to make sure I am starting my day with the foundational truths of the Word of God instead of just jumping out of bed and heading straight to work. I could even hum hymns instead of pressing my ear buds into place. But before too long these and many other good ideas could begin to feel like chores, and I want to delight in the things that matter.  So it seems to me that if I’m to get anywhere at all, there needs to be another will, a will other than my own that is at work in order for any ‘truth upon truth’ to be built up in my mind, for any ‘precept upon precept’ to make headway in my heart. And so, this is my hope: That I am not the only one clinging. That there is Another, and that His hold is the one that really matters.

In the book of 1 Kings, the Queen of Sheba travels all the way from Africa to hear the wisdom of King Solomon. But in Christ we have a King who traveled all the way from heaven to be the wisdom of God to us, and to put that wisdom in us. It was His tenacious hand and foot-holds on an old, rugged cross that accomplished this. It was Him letting go of His life that allows God’s thoughts to take hold of mine.
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds” (Hebrews 10:16).



Believing God in America

“People disagree with people all the time,” I wrote casually— “I will not lose sleep over you disagreeing with me now.” But it turned out that was a lie. I did lose sleep.

It’s been several years ago now, about five I guess, since I resigned as a pastor of a small town church and left my quiet office to step into the boots of the American working man. The transition was difficult.

I went to work at a local lumber mill, the only one left of a hundred that used to dot the map of the rural countryside where I live. Time passed.
I kept up my reading as best as I could, kept studying, wrote blog posts, listened to podcasts and volunteered at my church, wanting to be ready should the Lord call me back into full-time ministry. Nevertheless, I gradually lost touch with life “outside” the scope of my little mountain town in the county without a stoplight where I drove the same mile everyday. I forgot important things. I didn’t keep up with the news. I rarely got into debates and my edge grew a little dull. And all the while I forgot that outside small town America, outside Mayberry, the big wide world kept on moving.

I was reminded of this in a painful way this past month.

A controversial topic was raging across the Internet, just the latest reincarnation of one of five or six pet issues social media seems to regurgitate regularly and chew on like the cud of some bored cow, especially when the American cultural stance on the issue in question is at odds with the beliefs of Biblical Christianity. It’s nothing new. But as I read through piles of shared articles and emotional calls to action on this particular day, I began to notice a disturbing trend in the suggested solutions that actually did feel quite novel to me— I noticed the smallness of the role of God.

It wasn’t just the “secular,” “unbelieving” Facebook contingent shouting down to a whisper the Biblical stance on the issue at hand—it was Christians too. Christians, some of whom I had known personally, were suddenly (or so it seemed to me) closing ranks with the world. When it came to solutions, to framing how the issue should be understood or responded to, these Christians didn’t seem to be referencing the Bible at all—they weren’t remembering God.

In response, I offered up some well-known Bible verses, still not convinced the problem could be anything other than a simple oversight. But no, I was mistaken. It wasn’t an oversight at all. My appeal to Biblical authority was met with a mixture of sharp disagreement, exasperated amusement and verbal eye-rolls of embarrassment. I felt like Rip-Van-Winkle, waking to a different world. What was going on in America?

A Problem Beneath the Problem
One day at the mill I felt something stuck to the bottom of my boot. At a lumber mill, this is a fairly common occurrence. Wood chips and errant fragments of flotsam fly about and settle where they will all the time, and the ground around our work stations must be constantly cleared of debris to keep work conditions safe. So I didn’t think much of it and scraped my boot across a nearby piece of metal—problem solved. But several minutes later, the lump underfoot was back.

Again, I scraped off the bottom of my boot, following it up this time with a visual inspection in case I’d missed the chunk of wood the first time— but no, the bottom of my shoe appeared clear.

When the problem returned a third time I finally stopped the machinery and paused to investigate, taking a step or two back from my work station to get better vantage point. That’s when I saw the real problem.

On the metal catwalk where I’d been standing all day was a large rubber mat, placed there to ease the strain on my legs and back. And there, right where I liked to rest my right foot, a bulge beneath the mat was clearly visible. I lifted the mat and laughed—there was the problem. The chunk of wood had never been stuck in my shoe at all; it had always been stuck under the mat.

There is a problem beneath the problems of our world, a problem ‘beneath the mat,’ beneath not just the top five or six most common controversies that cycle along and scrap for attention on Facebook, but beneath every problem in the world. That problem is not intolerance or bigotry, not narrow-mindedness or hate. It is not poverty or lack of opportunity or even lack of education, although all of these are valid and vital issues that must be addressed in our world— the problem beneath even these problems is unbelief.

Before you indulge in yet another exasperated eye-roll, hear me out. Listen. I’m not saying that a simple ‘belief’ in the God of the Bible will somehow conversely eradicate sickness and poverty and bigotry and hate like some instant gratification magic trick, like one spritz of Glade ridding a dorm room of the scent of dirty socks. What it does, however, is establish a common starting point as well as an authoritative road map for meaningful, restorative living in a broken world. More than that, this Bible that reveals God is a conduit of power for carrying out the abundant life it points us towards, as a people, and yes, as a nation, ‘under God.’ Believing God really is the primary solution to every problem. It is the first step towards life as it was always meant to be.

But while unbelief attempts to navigate life and its problems without God, an even more troubling form of unbelief attempts to navigate life and its problems with a view of God that is untethered from the authoritative words of the Bible. I say more troubling because it actually kept me awake—“I will not lose sleep over you disagreeing with me,” I had written, but it turned out that was a lie. I did lose sleep. And here’s why— because, while I agree that non-Christians should not be expected to live like Christians, we have different expectations when it comes to fellow believers in Christ. Don’t we?

See, there’s a difference between ‘believing in God’ and ‘believing God.’ Those in the first group can do so without any commitment to the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible whatsoever. God can be whoever you want Him (or Her) to be. Pick and choose what you like from the Bible. Toss out what you don’t. But this is impossible for those in the second group. With the second group, which trusts that all the words of the Bible are God’s own words, when you stop believing the Bible, what it really means is that you have stopped believing God. The two are inseparable—because what God asks us to believe about Him and our world He reveals to us there. Believing God is always tied to believing the Bible. And what kept me awake that night was this singular, chilling thought: My friends had the symptoms of the first group— the symptoms of unbelief.

The shock of what feels like a drastically different climate of faith than when I resigned several years ago now comes at a time when I am poised, Lord willing, to re-enter the world of full-time Christian ministry. For many months now I have worked to complete a long-held goal: to finish the requirements for ordination as a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. I have been a licensed pastor for many years now, but crossing this particular threshold after the crucible of the past few years has been, for me, something of a trail marker, has held in its twists and turns the feel of a testing from God— not in the sense of an exam, but in the sense of being a refining fire.

A month ago, just days after these interactions on Facebook, I went through my final ordination interview before a panel of pastors and was (praise God!) recommended for ordination. But at one point, near the end of the interview, I was asked a series of questions: Why did I believe the Church was necessary? And the Bible— what does it offer to a world like ours today? Why does anything I might say from a pulpit, for that matter, anything my church might do in a community, make any difference in a world like ours with its own ideas of how to fix what’s wrong? Why would I want to become a pastor at a time like this?fullsizeoutput_19f7

And here is the reason why—because God’s words are LIFE, and that doesn’t change.

At the end of his days, after forty long years of faithfully leading God’s people and giving them God’s law in written form, this was the parting charge of Moses: “He said to them: ‘Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law. For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess.’” (Deuteronomy 32:46,47)

None of this has changed. It is as true for America today as it was for Israel then— God’s words are life! They are life because God is life, and they flow from His own character, from His own heart. It is never a waste of time to ‘set our hearts’ on these words. In a world of futility they are treasure never wasted, truths never powerless, promises never empty, wisdom never pointless, hope never barren and grace never vain. The word of God is “like fire… like a hammer” (Jer. 23:29). It is not “the word of men, but…the word of God” (1Thess. 2:13). It never ‘returns to God empty’ (Isaiah 55:11), but is “useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2Tim 3:16). It is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105), “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17), the “truth” (Jn. 17:17), and is, even today, “living and active” (Heb. 4:12).
Why would I want to become a pastor at a time like this? Because the world, America included, needs to know God more than ever, and hearing His words is the first step to trusting Him. And so I ask you, if you would, to pray with me the lyrics from one of my favorite hymns that we sang just last week at my ordination ceremony. I ask that you would pray with me as my family and I set out on our own new adventure of believing God—“My gracious Master, and my God, assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad, the honors of Thy Name.”



The Brightest Lights Are Fleeting

I watched him work for nearly three months. Slowly, carefully, methodically. I could tell it was a labor of love.

The man is about my age. Stocky. Shaved head and a beard. He looks tough, like the sort of guy who might have a nickname like “meat” or “ice” or “sledge.” Probably Sledge. He works very hard.

I drive by his house almost every day on my way home from work. Some days he’s out front splitting wood, some days he’s not yet home. Most mornings he’s warming his truck up when I leave for work. I think he’s got a teenage daughter.
The point is, the guy’s got a lot on his plate; this man is busy. And even when he’s not—like after work, or on weekends—he still doesn’t sit around the house. Or at least he hasn’t been. Not for the past few months anyway.

For the past few months I’ve watched the man work on his yard. Well, not his yard, exactly; it’s actually just fifteen square feet of earth out front of the housing complex where he lives. It’s shared space. People park there, change their oil there, dump their stuff there. Large bunks of wood have been tossed out haphazardly to serve as curbs. Weeds grow through scattered gravel where the oil leaks let them. The place is in shambles. Or at least it was. Because at some point the man with the beard and shaved head decided to make that little patch of gravel beautiful.

I watched him in the heat of August as he hauled away the wood and the trash and shoveled out the gravel. As he took a rake and leveled up the coarse soil beneath by eye until it was passably flat. I watched him clear the patch of rocks.

In September I watched him spread fresh soil and then drag a bag of grass seed from his beat-up pickup. I watched him scatter the seed carefully and then water it, water it, water it some more until the patch smelled of earth the way it should smell after a good hard rain.

In October I watched him build a fence. First the string line went up, the stakes with that one just a little bit off but he fixed it, the post holes dug one by one and by hand. Then came the posts themselves, salvaged wood, and finally the worn fence boards that looked as though they’d come from the dump. But he cut them to size, sanded them, and then finished the whole thing off with a crisp, dignified coat of white paint. By Halloween the place looked transformed.

In November I imagine the man gave thanks that the project was finally done. But the crowning touch came in December.

I got up around 4am the other day and puttered around and fussed with the coffee and breakfast and with attending to my soul, and then eventually made it out to my truck to leave for work— just another dreary weekday morning. But that’s when I saw the lights.
They were beautiful lights, tiny white winking ones, strung along and cheerful and gleaming off the brilliant white finish of the man’s brand new fence. And it was magical. Almost redemptive. It was the final touch. But as beautiful as they were, I knew the lights were fleeting.

Everyone Loves the Shine
It’s almost Christmas, and the whole world seems to know it. It’s magical. It’s redemptive. The bright lights are everywhere. Cookies abound, families come home and enemies clamber from war-torn trenches to shake hands. They play a football match. They share a song.
People smile more. They walk around in ugly sweaters on purpose. Bosses on the ‘Nice’ List give bonuses.
But soon Christmas will be over. Soon, the extra magic and the joy and the lights will all go back into the boxes and under the bushels to hide, and then what? Then what will shine?

I don’t imagine things felt very ‘shiny’ that first Christmas in Bethlehem. Probably it was a lot of chaos and noise and uncertainty. Probably there was also some fear. None of these things, I should mention, go extremely well on Christmas cards.

But certainly there was joy too. Certainly there was great wonder and rejoicing and praise. There were at least a few bright, redemptive moments going on.
Take the shepherds; they had their moment. One minute they’re keeping watch over their flocks by night and then the next, the glory of the Lord is shining all around them. Angels are filling the sky! Music is filling their ears! But the brightest moment of all is the baby—that baby was born for them!

And the wise men. How wise or how many I do not know, but they came, that much is certain, and they came because the humdrum of their everyday lives was altered by the light of that rising star. And they followed it, followed that star all the way to Jesus.

And then Mary. Together with Joseph, stunned, probably a bit overwhelmed, receiving visitors and gifts and treasures that could only be kept in the heart. How humbling it all must have been, how strange, how very full of wonder. But it could not last forever. Soon they would have to flee for their lives, another task not conducive to joy, and after that return to the plodding business of child rearing, of Raising Jesus, which by the way would have been a very entertaining book to read on parenting. And those wise men— they had to head home too you know; life must go on back east. And sheep; sheep must be tended to or they wander off into all manner of idiocy. But I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded of that.

The Light Shines in the Darkness
The point is, life is more than the brightest lights; the brightest lights are fleeting.
“[Christ] points us away from the startling, the wonderful, the catastrophic, to those humble ordinary means which we already know so well, and often esteem so lightly,” says Archibald Alexander, a minister who wrote devotionals about the everyday and the common, about “The Stuff of Life.” Instead, he says, Christ points “to the old Book, with all its inspiration and help for right living, to the pew in God’s House, where He has a special tryst to meet us, and where some of us keep our tryst just once in a while, to the quiet prayer, when we are alone with God and our true self. It is there we shall get what we need. For those who are unwilling to use these, no miracle, says Jesus, would avail. We want the wonderful, the out-of-the-common, and we shall be judged, we are being judged now, by the use we make of the ordinary. There can be no staggering revelation, no uplifting vision for those who have Moses and the prophets, and do not use them.” (Archibald Alexander, The Five Brothers)

Most of life actually takes place, you see, in the ordinary, in the shadows. Most of it takes place in the glaring heat of Summer, or the bone-soaking rains of Autumn, or in the chill of Winter’s wind—and that’s okay. More than okay, it’s probably important. Character is built in the shadows, strength can come through pain, and as was the case in the life of Christ, the most redemptive moments in history can actually come from the darkest days.

But I guess what I’m trying to say is that I hope you can enjoy the bright grace of this season without dreading what comes next. What comes after. That you can appreciate the joy and let in the wonder without making into pointlessness all that falls outside the reach of the beautiful lights, the tiny white winking ones, strung along and cheerful and gleaming. Because there is purpose and hope there too.

Christmas was prepped and built out there beyond the lights, built on Moses and the prophets, built like my neighbor’s fence— slowly, carefully, methodically; it was a labor of love under the worst conditions. And without all of that there would be no staggering revelation, no Bethlehem, no uplifting vision that is Christmas. For generations God cleared the rocks and leveled the soil. For ages He scattered the seeds and watered them, set up His string line, corrected the deviations. For years He toiled in the shadows to bring about the birth of His Son at just the right time in human history, and this was the result: the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”birth-of-jesus-1150128_960_720There was purpose and hope built into and building through all those years of waiting, and now that the light has come in the form of a Savior who is Christ the Lord, it re-infuses all that we are and do with fresh meaning and purpose and power, even after the lights of Christmas come down at the end of the season. But unless you see what it took to make Christmas meaningful, why Christ had to come and how it changes everything, you will miss what it all really means; you will miss the point. You will miss the true transformative greatness of that little baby who lived the life you should have lived and died the death you should have died. You will shrink the significance of His arrival down until it fits into a snow globe, fits into a little storefront manger, fits into a single day or a single month of brightness once a year. And that is just a little bit tragic. Because His coming was made ready in the ordinary days, and it was made for them too.  

It doesn’t matter how bright the lights on your tree or house or fence are. It doesn’t matter how good the cookies or the fun or how many gifts pile up in the living room— it doesn’t matter. Because if the shine of Christmas for you is all wrapped up in these things it will quickly fade; this kind of light is fleeting. But if the shine of Christmas is a Savior— not just a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, but Almighty God ‘growing up’ to walk in your shoes— ah, well, then this kind of shine puts the whole year into a new sort of light, doesn’t it? This kind shines in the darkness.



The Thanksgiving Dish You Don’t Know About

You’ve heard the expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for?’ I’ve lived it. “Surprise us,” we said once, and that’s exactly what ended up happening.

The Mystery Meat of Brethren
It was the night of our annual dorm dinner, a great feasting affair put on each year by the heads of our boarding school houses, “which were just like the Hogwarts houses,” I once told my 12year-old, “except without passwords or uniforms or magical flying broomsticks.” Brethren dorm, a low, rambling structure sunk into a grassy hillside, was one of two dormitories on campus that housed high school boys, which is to say it was a den of evil and devilry and stink. And yet, for three years of my life, it was also home.

The traditional meat served at Brethren dorm dinners was pork; an entire pig, to be exact. We were actually quite famous for it. Not because it conjured up glimpses of our Lord of The Flies way of life, but mostly because of the elaborate way we prepared it, kālua style. A pit was dug out front and a fire built inside it. Rocks were added to retain the heat. Then, once the rocks were hot, the hole was lined with banana leaves or something similar and the readied pig was wrapped and placed inside before being covered back over with dirt. Seven hours later the meat was ready—juicy, hot and falling off the bone. It was sweet, it was salty, it was to die for. And yet, somehow, we got tired of it.

“I wish we could eat something else next year,” someone said.

“Like what?” our dorm parents asked.

“Surprise us,” we said.

The night of the next dorm dinner arrived with an almost palpable air of expectancy. Speculation abounded. The cooks looked busy. Finally, it was time to line up. I think we were served rice first, followed by a meat-choked red sauce that was ladled over the top of it. I sniffed my plate as I walked back to my seat; it smelled amazing. A few cautious bites of the mystery meat confirmed that it tasted fantastic too, but… what was it? I poked at the large chunks hoping for clues. Nothing. This stuff could be beef. I began to feel cheated.

And then I saw the tail.

Why I had mistaken it for a noodle on a plate full of rice, I will never know. Nevertheless, the ten-inch appendage had managed to go unnoticed until the very moment I accidentally snagged it with my fork and lifted the thing halfway to my mouth. That’s when I saw it.

I blinked.

“It’s a tail,” I said, to no one in particular. I kept staring at it. Then someone else saw it too, and then another, and pretty soon the whole place was jabbering and pointing at once, some looking sick and others appearing as though they were on the verge of an extraordinary adventure. This was true enough. For it had dawned on everyone at precisely the same moment what it was we were eating:

We were eating RAT.mouse-145286_960_720

The Mystery Food of Jesus
In John chapter 4, at just about the same time the Samaritan woman was leaving Jacob’s well after talking with Jesus, the disciples were arriving back with food they had purchased in town. The men exchanged looks as they approached but said nothing about the woman who was disappearing back the way they’d just come. None of our business. Instead, as if to avoid the elephant in the room, they urged the Master to eat. “But He said, ‘I have food to eat that you don’t know about’” (v.32). Again, they exchanged awkward glances. “Could someone have brought him food” (v.33)? It’s hard not to feel bad for these guys. I think it was a fair question. But Jesus graciously explained the mystery: “’My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’” (v.34).

I was telling my son this story on the way down to Redding.
“You see,” I said, “the Bible tells us there are two kinds of food. There is physical food, and everyone knows about that. But there is also spiritual food, and that’s the kind people don’t know about. Or maybe they just forget. Anyway, that’s what happened with the disciples. And Jesus had to remind them. The Bible says this spiritual food is the word of God (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4), and that it feeds us as we both take it in and also work it out (James 1:22). That’s what Jesus was talking about here; He had just ‘worked out’ the love of God for this Samaritan woman.”

“Now,” I said, testing his attention span, “what happens when we stop eating physical food?”
“We get weak, hungry, grumpy, sick,” my son said, and then, for good measure, added—“and then we DIE.”
“Yes, well,” I said, “thanks for that. And the same holds true when we ignore the words of God; part of us withers away. But when we read God’s word and meditate on it in prayer and when we join with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to put His words into action, well then, the Bible says we are nourished. Fed. Filled—and we grow. Isn’t that the coolest thing?” It is, he agreed, and we fell into a comfortable silence. But I knew, as we drove on toward town, that as surely as the sun would rise the next day, so would the enemy of our souls soon come to accuse him, my boy, just as he has accused me, and perhaps you as well, with the charge of “not enough.” That threat is inevitable. So I spoke up one more time.

italy-1354051_960_720“Why do we take communion?” I asked him. He thought for a second.

“To remember what Jesus did for us,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “and what did Jesus do?”

“He died for us. And then he rose again.”

“That’s right,” I said, “but there’s more. He didn’t just die for us Bud—He lived for us too. He lived the life we should have lived, all of it. Every single word of God He took into Himself, and every single work of God He acted out, carried out, for us. He wasted no time. He missed no opportunity. He perfectly lived out God’s will, every time. And it was this perfectly nourished, healthy, God-pleasing, mature life that was offered up on the cross for us—so that it could become our life.” His face was fixed on mine.

“Now,” I said, “what act do we do to remember this amazing grace?”
“The bread,” he said— “We—“ and a look of surprise came over his face—
“We eat the broken bread and we drink the juice.”
“That’s right,” I said— “We consume them. We take in the symbols of His broken body and poured-out blood to remind ourselves that in Him, in Christ crucified, rests all the finished work required of humankind by God. All the work required of you and me. What Jesus did, in life and in death, was enough. And when we put our trust in Him we are given His life, and His life makes us good enough for God.”

It was a wonderful discussion about the finished work of Christ. But does it mean there is no work left for us? No, of course not—we still have our marching orders (Matt. 28:1-20; Micah 6:8). We still have our spiritual food to eat. There’s room for us to grow. What it means is that grace covers all our missed opportunities and that grace empowers us for the ones still to come. What it means is that we don’t live to justify ourselves anymore, but to bless God and others. Is there still work for us to do? Yes. But the product of grace is gratitude— and gratitude transforms duty into joy.mouse-145286_960_720

Happy Thanksgiving!



NOT A MIRAGE: A Politics-Free Thought For Your Tuesday

It’s been easy, hasn’t it, to get drawn in?

The repetitive ads, the relentless news cycle, the endless shouting voices on social media… It’s been easy to get drawn in, but it’s also been easy to get put-out. Curious, isn’t it?— That something could be so attractive to us, and yet at the same time so repulsive? And it reminded me of something today, but not politics, because this is a politics-free thought for your Tuesday. It reminded me, instead, of holiness.

An encounter with holiness is what I discovered in the book my 12yr-old and I are currently reading, my favorite of the C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy, book two, called Perelandra. In it, just Continue reading NOT A MIRAGE: A Politics-Free Thought For Your Tuesday


Why You Can’t Stop Screwing up

There’s a hand-written quote that hangs above our kitchen sink which reads: “A lie believed as though it were truth, carries the power of truth in our life.”  This is— and here before we even know each other I’m going to make up a word— this is the importance of ‘believior.’

I wish, growing up in the church, I’d heard about the importance of believior as much as I heard about the importance of behavior. Because if ‘behavior’ is the way a person behaves, ‘believior’ is the way a person believes, and really, believior comes first— what and how we believe will inform and shape the way we behave— not the other way around. Continue reading Why You Can’t Stop Screwing up


The Myth of the Welcoming Wild

“Let’s go,” prods the hippo in a scene from the movie Madagascar— “Make a wish babycakes.” The zebra being addressed pauses and then smiles before blowing out a candle shaped like the number ‘10.’ A moment later he’s happily chowing down on his birthday cake.

His best friend, a lion, nods toward the smoking candle.
“Come on,” he says—“What’d you wish for?” The zebra won’t say. “It’s bad luck,” he says. But the lion is persistent. Finally, the zebra relents.
“Okay,” he admits, “I wished I could go… to the wild!”
“The wild?” repeats the lion, now alarmed— “Are you nuts? That is the worst Idea I’ve ever heard.”
“Come on,” says the zebra, a faraway look in his eyes, “just imagine going back to nature— Continue reading The Myth of the Welcoming Wild


The Things We Don’t See

The sounds began as thumps in the attic and then grew, as time passed, into increasingly ominous ‘bumps in the night.’ But at first I paid no attention.

They came late in the evening or early in the morning, times when the house was quiet and the world outside was dark. Initially I chalked it up to the normal sounds of an old and settling house, but then the noises started becoming strange. Distinct. Intentional. At one point I was pretty sure there was something living up there, rats maybe, but who doesn’t have rats? And what was the harm, really?— they weren’t actually interfering with my life. I shook it off and kept on living.

Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring, the seasons changed and the sounds came and went. But when they came, now, they were more and more insistent, and more frequent. It reminded me vaguely of wilderness camping in the Trinity Alps, of the times I would hike for miles, alone, in the dark. Continue reading The Things We Don’t See


Wooden Ships & Iron Men

When I was a boy and school was out, I’d run home across a large, grassy field, calling my dog to meet me. She would bound out of the front screen door and fly down the steps, turn tail when she reached me and then race me back to the covered veranda that wrapped around the single story plantation house where I was born. There, having lost the race as I did each day, I would sit on an old wooden bench to catch my breath and switch out my tennis shoes for black leather army boots. Then I would head toward the African jungle that surrounded our home to meet my friends.

“Do you have your machete?” my mom would call out after me from the house.
“Got it!” I’d holler back, hefting the sixteen-inch blade.
And then I was off.

It’s hard to imagine this kind of freedom for kids today.

My friend Anne wrote a poignant piece a while back about this very thing, about how times have changed to the point that a parent can no longer risk letting their kids out of their sight to go play outside. The risk, she explains, is no longer just the possibility of Continue reading Wooden Ships & Iron Men