Remembering John Berlin

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It’s hard to summarize a life, especially one that meant so much to you. But my friend John Berlin had a life worth celebrating and I want to tell you why.

I could go on for days about John’s childhood and the thousands of stories he told about swimming, canoeing, fist fights and car wrecks; I could tell you all about his struggles with alcohol and drugs, or his experiences in Viet Nam, his failed marriages (yes plural), or his many corporate careers; I could tell you about how he found recovery, found Jesus, and found a woman he would be crazy in love with right to the end; I could tell you about the stacks of poems, stories and novels he wrote and was constantly sharing with those who would listen. He had one of the most interesting lives of anyone I’ve ever known.

But his unique experiences aren’t the most important thing about him. To be sure, I had the benefit of hearing many of the stories and gleaning wisdom from those experiences, but John was one of my dearest friends, and just knowing him was its own kind of gift. He was wise and discerning, hilariously sarcastic, but most of all he loved people deeply.

I’ve known John for over half my life. My first real memory of John is from when I was about twelve. John and Audrey came over to take a family picture (Audrey is a gifted photographer), and I remember that we all could barely stand up because John had us laughing so hard (holding a tin-foil covered sheet pan to reflect light in our faces).

John and his wife Audrey have been a constant source of joy and blessing to my family for about as long as I can remember. He was my mentor, spiritual father, and dear friend, the kind of person you call when you’re stuck and you don’t know what else to do.

John gave me more gifts than I can count, but three stand out to me: the gift of wisdom, the gift of belief, and the gift of love.

The Gift of Wisdom. I think I was fifteen when I asked John to be my mentor. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I needed one. He asked me to help him pull carpet at a rental property he owned, but in reality we sat on two folding chairs and talked about life. I told him my life story (which wouldn’t have been that long), and he told me a little about his own life (although I would find out much more in the years to come). We had a connection because of a similar wiring, and John had an uncanny ability to tell you all about yourself. He taught me the power of just being with a person–he’d invite me to tag along on seemingly random errands, which always turned into quality time and great conversation. I could ask John anything about anything, and I knew I would get a straight answer.

Years went on and we would stay connected through meals, phone calls (when I was living in other states) and emails. Later we worked together for a few years in one of John’s little companies. He would tell me things like “You can’t think your way into good living, you have to LIVE your way into good thinking,” that were drilled into my head by repetition.

Regardless of what project we were working on he would ask, “Jonathan, what is our job?” And I knew the answer was not “we fix glass,” or “we build beautiful windows,” but the answer was “we are problem solvers.” John taught me the power of staying in the solution instead of staying in the problem, a lesson I think about almost constantly. He had a spiritual gift of discernment, and could see into situations in crazy ways. He not only passed on this gift to me by osmosis, but would pray that God would give me wisdom and discernment as well.

The Gift of Belief. John was a musician, and music was something we had in common. He loved classical music and would often be “blasting Bach” the way teens would jam to their favorite rock band. He played guitar and led worship so worship was a great subject of conversation in our times together. If I led worship somewhere, he would often come to that church if for no other reason than to support me.

One of the most precious memories I have is of our “art nights” that the Berlins would host at their home. We would have dinner and talk and then everyone would share something beautiful that was meaningful to them. John would read a story or a poem, others might share things that meant a lot to them, but eventually there was music. The music was always special.

We would sing songs that we loved by James Taylor or Van Morrison, but eventually we would worship together. It was always a sweet time of worship together in the living room or the porch.

I think it was on one of those occasions that John brought out his 1965 Gibson acoustic guitar for me to play. I was playing a pretty crummy guitar that someone had given me (long story), and playing his guitar was an incredible difference. The guitar has amazing tone (as old guitars do) and it plays like a dream.

I played a song or two on it and John said “Jonathan, I want you to have that guitar.” I was speechless. I didn’t understand why he would give me such a gift. He went on, “I’m giving you this guitar because I believe in you. You have a gift. When you sing, I can hear your heart’s hunger for God. So I want to give you this guitar as an investment in that gift. Don’t ever lose that when you sing in front of people.”

The only thing he made me promise is that I would never sell the guitar. No worries there, it has priceless sentimental value.

The Gift of Love. Of all the things John gave me, the most precious gift was love. Throughout all of our experiences, I knew that John loved me and was for me.

He demonstrated love in his marriage and set an example that I always wanted to follow. He loved me enough to tell me the truth about myself, even when it wasn’t pleasant to hear it. When I would call, he loved me enough to tell me he loved me, and thought about me all the time. He helped me get ready for being married, and gave the best (and most genuine) advice for loving well.

I will miss having John in my life, but I have great peace knowing that he is with the Lord. John went through so many incredibly difficult health scares that I often worried that we would lose him. But I’m not worried now, nor do I have any regrets. I decided a long time ago that I would take every chance I could to tell him how much he meant to me, and how much his impact on my lives on in how I lead others. I told him that many times, that he made a huge difference in my life and I’ll be forever grateful for him. I know without a doubt that he knew how much he meant to me. He has left a beautiful legacy that lives on in those he loved.

John went to be with Jesus on Thursday night, but I know I will see him again. And I know he’s cheering for me and for all of us who loved him, as we press on toward the goal of the prize he has now attained. He lived long and loved well, and I’m proud to have been his friend. We’ll sing together again someday soon. As the song says, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”

The Dangerous Invitation of Authenticity

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When I was about thirteen years old, I was at a theme park with the youth group from my church. Now you should know that I’m not much of a “thrill seeker” type, but when the group goes on these trips you go along to hang with friends…even if you’re miserable the whole time.

One of the guys in the group was one of those “prankster” types who definitely had a promising future with the guys from Jack*ss. Normally I would have distanced myself from this sort of behavior, flown under the radar, and made it out of there without incident. But not this time. Jack*ss guy was coming for me.

We were all standing around in one of the quintessential “youth-group-outing huddles” (the ones where you talk for twenty minutes about whether or not we want to eat next, go home, or ride more rides then eat and go home), when the aforementioned “funny guy” came up behind me and gave a swift and terrible tug to my cargo shorts. Yep, the fear of adolescents everywhere: I was “pantsed.”

Now, to be fair, it didn’t turn into one of those “everyone was pointing at me and laughing hysterically” moments (like the scenario in the classic “I showed up to work and forgot to wear pants” dreams), but I was pretty embarrassed. What early teen wants to reveal their taste in undergarments (boxer briefs if you’re curious) to the surrounding strangers, friends and enemies (specifically girls)? Not me.

Who knows what kind of deep psychological impact that event had on me, but I would guess that it’s events like this that make being vulnerable later in life so difficult. We learn from an early age to hide who we are because if people see it they may reject us. Before we know better how to handle it, things happen to us that expose our awkward and flawed selves, and we spend much time and energy trying to avoid more painful exposure.

But here’s the problem: we aren’t meant to live fake lives. God made us exactly who we are for a reason and he gets glory when we live fully embracing who he made us to be. This idea has really challenged me lately.

One of the staff values at our church is authenticity, and it isn’t one of those “honorary” values that people say but really don’t care about. It’s real. I keep getting told over and over “just be you,” and it has taken a while to sink in. It’s a godly value that is truly upheld and valued.

But old habits die hard. When you’ve spent your entire life trying to adjust your behavior to the expectations of people around you (think “social norms”), how do suddenly find a way to just “be you”? How do you dig deep and find where the real you begins and the fake you ends?

“Be you” means you have to first “see you” and be ok with it. This is probably the hardest part. For me the challenge is trying to understand the why behind the way I am. I want to know why I do what I do and why the heck God decided to make that thing a part of me.

Some of it seems pointless, like “Really God? Couldn’t you give that ‘quality’ to someone else??” But there is power in the acceptance of who God made you to be. When you believe he loves you as you are, you can begin to love others for who they are, instead of rejecting them for being different or liking the people who are like you (or even worse trying to change people to be just like you!).

I don’t have all the answers, and I can tell you that the process isn’t easy and it isn’t quick. When you start to look for them, there are all kinds of opportunities to go a little deeper in your answer, opinion, or encouragement. There will probably always be a slight sense of hesitation when confronted with the invitation to be authentic and vulnerable. The fear is deep-rooted.

But I have found incredible freedom in the invitation of authenticity. Just as I want to really know others, others want to really know me. If God makes each person unique, we miss out on an aspect of God when we fail to know and be known.

If you’re up for a challenge, try inching your way toward letting people see the real you. Or better yet, ask God to help you see yourself and receive his love. It will be the first step in helping you love yourself and others better. It’s an invitation to a better life and richer, deeper relationships.

Put Your Shoes Out

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These days it seems like everyone is busy. Ask anyone how they are and you’ll probably get something like, “Man…things are good but crazy!” We spend our days busy trying to get all of our work done and, if possible, not take our work home with us. We’re busy with family events, sports, parties, church, trips, you name it. Even our days off are busy.

I’ll admit it, most of the time I feel pretty busy too. I have to fight to stay sane in the middle of lots of activity. It’s hard to prioritize family with a busy schedule. Even though I have to be at rehearsals, events, and special services from time to time, I try really hard to be home for dinner and bedtime as much as possible. I’ve got a long list of people I’m waiting to hang out with (if you’re one of them I’m sorry). Ever feel like you should schedule social events three months in advance? Yeah, me too.

In the midst of all of this, I am making an effort to be as consistent as possible with hitting the gym. It’s easy when you’re busy to make excuses about why you can’t exercise, but staying in good shape is crucial to your short and long term survival.

Without trying to toot my own horn, I would say I’ve been pretty successful with consistent exercise over the past few months. Most of the time I get up around 4:30 and head to the gym so I’m back home before the family gets up. Going early gets my day going and I don’t miss out on the quality morning time before I have to head off to work. Yes, getting up that early can be tough, but I’ve discovered a little trick that helps me win the daily struggle with the snooze button:

I put my gym shoes and shorts out in the living room before I go to bed. 

Sometimes the most difficult step toward any kind of progress is the first one. But I’ve learned that if you can remove even the smallest obstacle it can make a world of difference.

When the gym clothes are out the night before I have already set an expectation for myself when the alarm goes off. When the sounds of “cascading rain” come crashing into my dreams in the wee hours of the morning, I don’t have the luxury of “well I don’t want to rummage around for my clothes” as an excuse. I’ve set myself up for success. When my plan for the morning is mapped out in 15 minute increments, I know that any delay will start a chain reaction that puts me in catch up mode for the rest of the day.

Turns out this strategy can be applied in many other areas of life. If you don’t want to eat all of the potato chips in one sitting, try dosing them out into ziplock bags before you go for a snack. Portion control is real. Try putting only a few cans of that beverage or soft drink in the fridge at a time and see if it helps prevent you from going for another one. If you don’t want to waste your whole night watching TV, decide a specific limit to your view time (or better yet, don’t turn it on in the first place).

Small victories go a long way. If we focus on “going to the gym for a year,” or “getting in shape,” or “saving for retirement,” we won’t get far. I don’t have to do everything to “get in shape” today, but as long as I lace up my shoes and get in the gym I have won half the battle. If I can do that, I’ll be in good shape.

 

Where I Am Right Now (a life journey update)

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Thanks to Jared Anderson for that phrase, “Where I Am Right Now.” His song by that same title blesses me. It’s all about trusting God where you are instead of looking ahead to someplace you aren’t:

“I’m called to be where I am right now,
In the middle of a storm but I have no doubt
That you are here with me.”

I’m guilty of that, living with an obsessively future-oriented outlook. The truth is, HERE is all we have. I’m not waiting for some future place to “arrive,” I’m not afraid of missing my “big chance,” I want to live content, trusting, and abiding in peace.

It occurred to me recently (as most things do – thanks to my wife) that many of you (my blog-following friends out there) might not know about some of the crazy stuff that has happened in the Vinke’s world in the past year or so. If you don’t really care, you can stop reading now. For those of you with a soul (and some patience – this is a long one), here’s a little update on “the big three” major events of this season of life that have rocked our world (in a good way).

IMG_0654New baby. We welcomed our son Levi Emil to the family on January eighth of this year. We didn’t have as tough a time as many friends, but it was quite a ride getting him here! He has been very healthy and very happy and we are very thankful to God for the precious gift!

New homeIMG_0655We are homeowners! After lots of looking (the Jacksonville market is HOT!), God secured for us a perfect home in a perfect spot for us. Even in the midst of struggle and challenge, he cleared the way for us to get into our own home and we are loving it!


New job.
This is the big one…so a little backstory is required. In July of 2014, we stepped out in faith and moved from Atlanta to Jacksonville to work at a great church on the southeast side of town. The move was a result of a lot of stirring and searching, and was big jump to say the least. We left family, friends, and really the place we called home for most of our lives in order to step out in search of what God has for us.

As you probably know, any move to a new city brings challenges. We didn’t know many people, we didn’t know the area, and the church was…VERY different than we were used to. We were welcomed and loved from the start but the learning curve was steep. The denomination and style of the church were at the opposite end of the spectrum from where we had been in the past.

In my theoretical/theological brain, I could see lots of value to the tradition and preferences that were priorities in this tradition; my wife, who wired quite different, struggled quite a bit. To say we had a lot of “discussions” about this would be an understatement. We wrestled through a lot together and are better as a couple because of the experience. I worked hard to bring positive change in the church and add as much value as I could. Even so, after about fourteen months we knew it wasn’t the right fit for our family.

It’s hard to accurately (or briefly) summarize what our life was like in that season. It was multifaceted and complex as life often is. There were so many blessings that are hard to quantify. You won’t find a more generous, loving and hospitable group of people; I was given an incredible amount of opportunity to learn, grow and express my gifts (for which I’m forever grateful); we formed some new friendships that, Lord willing, will be lifelong. It was a gift!

In the midst of all of this blessing, there were some undeniable and inescapable realities that I had to face. The culture just wasn’t a fit for our family long term. As hard as my wife worked to get “into it,” the priorities of that particular style of worship just weren’t resonating with her. We needed room to run fast, be really challenged, and be around like-minded people. It was a hard and painful decision, as transition decisions almost always are. But I knew the right thing to do.

Image-1In the fall of last year, I had no idea what God was going to do. We knew we needed to step out once again and felt pretty open to going just about anywhere.  But God had other plans. In a way that only God can do, I got a “random” call from a friend I about a church here in Jacksonville called the Church of Eleven22. I reluctantly agreed to have lunch and hear about God was doing.

To say I was skeptical is a slight understatement; at every step, I thought, “there’s no way this is going to work out.” But (easy to see now) it did work out. Every meeting with every leader was encouraging, intriguing, and led me to take another step forward. It was like the door just swung wide open, and the timing was perfect. Perfect timing…that sounds like someone I know…

It’s hard to describe the sweetness of stepping into a season that feels as natural as a birthday. After you are ten, you turn eleven. That’s just the way it goes. I love it when God takes us into seasons like that, when we get to see that every step we have taken before has led us to this point. Like finding random keys in your garage over a series of years, only to find that they open the door to the house down the street you didn’t know was yours.

In case you haven’t noticed, those three events are top of the list of big-time stresses on people–and we experienced all three within a period of six months! We need your prayers!

But God has been so good. I’m so grateful for his hand on our lives, that he cares enough to lead us through every season with such great care. He is lovingly preparing us for each next step, even in the midst of seasons where the greatest thing we can do is be ok with where we are. I want to be the kind of person who can say,

“I am yours and you are mine,
You can move me any time,
I’m resting in your perfect peace,
Where I am right now.”

 

Warring Desires and Self-Denial

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In the season of Lent, many Christians (myself included) choose to fast from some type of food, drink, or activity as an exercise in spiritual discipline as a preparation for Easter.

Historically in the church, Lent has been a season of preparation for baptism–the final push for catechumenates (Christian converts in training) was a fast that ended in an all-night vigil and a glorious baptism service on Easter morning. Christians who had fallen out of fellowship with God or the church would also fast during Lent and were re-admitted into the fellowship of believers at Easter.

Today many churches don’t usually restrict baptism (or repentance) exclusively to Lent, but it is still a great time to practice self-denial as we prepare for the highlight of Christian celebrations (Resurrection Sunday). These practices have tremendous spiritual benefit. Self-denial helps us remember that Christ is Lord and we are not slaves to anything, especially to those things that we so naturally go to for comfort. We remember that we are weak and that we desperately need the help of God’s Spirit to walk this Christian journey–a power that Christ’s Resurrection has purchased for us. It is an act of war against our flesh, that sly and sticky force within us that wants so desperately to rule our lives.

But this aggression seldom goes unanswered. I find that when I fast, no matter what I fast from, the desires in my heart rebel with great force. This always surprises me (although it shouldn’t). Whether I’m denying myself sweets or television or social media, I invariably start to notice the restlessness of my heart rear its ugly head. I didn’t think I cared so much about the thing I gave up…until I started to say “no” to its beckoning cries. The things that seek to take first place in my heart begin to bare down with white-knuckled desperation. Then I remember I’m fasting…this is Lent…and it all starts to make sense.

This is the nature of many spiritual battles in our lives. We don’t notice them until we are right in the thick of things. Without disciplines like fasting we are all like the frog in the pot, slowly and ignorantly boiling to death in our own desires. When we say no to the things that seek to rule us, we are remembering that Christ actually rules our lives (and the universe). Spiritual disciplines snap us awake and help us see reality.

This is one of the reasons I love worship. Worship orients us to reality, as the psalmist writes about in Psalm 73. He, like so many of us, gets fed up with the (apparent) effortless and consistent success of wicked people (v. 4). The voice of arrogant scoffers is overwhelming at times…especially in an election year. The psalmist almost gets lost in his frustration until he goes into God’s house and sees the truth: they are destroyed in a moment (v. 19) and those who are far from God will perish (v. 27). What was the turning point? Worship. Drawing near to God broke the cycle of bitterness and frustration and helped the psalmist remember that the highest good is to be near to God (v. 28). It doesn’t get any better than that.

So a word of encouragement: If you are (trying to) practice self-denial and are finding some surprising thoughts, desires, or habits rearing their ugly head this Lent season, take heart: Christ has won the battle! Saying no to little gods can be a challenge, but nearness to God is worth the fight.

 

 

Image credit: Getty Images, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/sport-spare-time-boys-at-a-tug-of-war-1933-vintage-property-news-photo/542940737

Pages

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Have you stopped to consider the power of a page? The page is full of possibility, beckoning us to work out our life, a story, a song or a plan. Often intimidating, the blank page is an invitation to change.
Whether made of paper, a digital display, a scrap of napkin or the first blank spot inside a book cover, we lay ourselves out on pages and something happens. We etch the things we learn on blank space and the shapes and lines shape us.
Sometimes I spend an hour or two in front of pages and walk away a different person, like I have learned something about myself that I almost knew but never could have if the page hadn’t helped me.
I read a quote recently in a book by John C. Maxwell:
“Experience isn’t the best teacher; evaluated experience is.”
As we draw near the end the calendar year, find a spot amid the binge-watching re-runs of “Friends” and driving your RC cars around the house and do some reflecting. Find a comfy seat and remember all the gifts you have received, not just the ones you unwrap on Christmas. Think about how you might have open eyes to see the gifts in the coming year. Ask God to help. Find a page and say “yes” to the invitation. Adventure is waiting.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours.
(image credit: http://img09.deviantart.net/50e5/i/2008/285/d/f/blank_page_black_and_white_by_spenc3rr.jpg)

The Ways We Self-Destruct

Rooftopping-walking-on-the-edge-of-buildingHave you ever walked on a dock with your phone, keys and wallet in your pocket? What do you instinctively do? Clutch the stuff that matters to you so you don’t lose it! This is a strange feeling if you consider the rationale. The contents of your pockets have (probably) never just jumped out and inexplicably ended up on the ground (or in this case in the water), and yet you are sure that this will be the one time that it happens. Laws of physics? Forget ’em!

Or how about when you are on a high building or up a mountain? You may not have a history of just randomly losing your balance and careening towards a precipice, but when you’re up high it’s a real possibility. More than just fearing that these things will happen, there seems to be some sort of magnetism drawing you to the real possibility that something can go terribly wrong. Sometimes the mind can’t handle the line between what we love and what we would feel if we lost it.

The point is, I think we are all a little self-destructive by nature (some of us are a lot self-destructive). I think that at the core this is a result of our sin nature. We inherently resist what is best for us. We just can’t help it.

This is a fact that is extremely frustrating. Example: There is no longer any need for medical science to prove that sugar is bad for you. Refined sugar is a toxin that the human body doesn’t actually need to survive. It does more harm than good. Does that stop me from eating cheesecake? Heck no! In fact, it makes me want to eat more. And since I ate too much cheesecake, now I really need to exercise. Again, no scientific proof is needed to convince me that this is necessary. But I resist it, preferring instead to do anything that involves…not moving. Same goes for everything from flossing to praying. I know I need it, but I just dig in those heels and bite my lip.

Why is this? Sin. When Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God, the curse of sin entered into the creation. The same disease that led to their demise lives in us. No longer do we depend solely on God to give us all we need. We think we know best what’s best for ourselves. But we don’t.

This comes into sharpest relief for me in my time off. Sabbath is a struggle for me (another part of my “I know best” complex), not just because I stay pretty busy with tasks most of the time. The real struggle is not to stop working my “job” and do something else, but to actually choose the things that are good for me. Good things are life-giving. Bad things, well they just suck the life right out of you.

If you get to Monday morning feeling like you need another weekend, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes we pack our days “off” with so many things that we end up losing instead of gaining. Instead of making new rules for ourselves (“Ok then, I won’t go do anything!”) there is a different way to get back where we need to be. The way is the gospel.

It begins with this simple admission that the gospel brings us to: I can’t do it. In a word: surrender.
I can’t choose what’s best for me because, left to my own devices, I will self-destruct. The good news? Jesus not only chose the best for me but is the opposite of me: He is, by nature, constructive rather than destructive. He makes all things new (Rev. 21:5). We live into the gospel when we live into Christ, who knows the best things for us and can restore our soul (Ps. 23). We have to stop striving and trust in him. Harder to do than say.

In Jesus’ redemptive work he reversed the curse of sin, meaning that the “I know better” disease can be defeated by a “He knows best” heart of faith. So the only work I have to do to overcome this tendency is to go to him to get what’s good for me. Abide in him, walk through the day with him. He is a good Father and gives good gifts (Luke 11, James 1:17).

The best times for me are times that God ordains, so the question of the ages is why do I keep running away, thinking I know what’s best? There are traces of the sin disease still in me, and only through a constant feeding on the Daily Bread do I have a chance to survive. Without it, I self-destruct.

What are some ways that you can go let Jesus show you what’s best?

 

 

Image credit: ilovetoronto.com

The Worst Version of Myself

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This past weekend I spent about nine hours under the hood of my car. I received the bad news that my A/C compressor needed to be replaced a month or so ago, and rather than pay the thousand or so bucks they wanted to do the repair, I decided I would buy the parts and do it myself to save a little money. People do crazy things to save a little money.

Summers here are hot, so I knew I couldn’t just go the old 4/70 route like I used to (that’s when your A/C system is four windows down, driving seventy down the road). Never having done this repair before I did as much prep as I could and didn’t really expect it to take too long. After all, the instruction manual had all the steps laid out right there in front of me, and they looked simple enough (If you’ve ever done a major repair on your car, you know that it doesn’t take long before you want to hunt down the people who wrote the manual for mocking your pain while insulting your intelligence.).

Things were going smooth until the first hiccup. Then the second, and then the third, and so on. All tolled I had to go out to the store five times for parts or tools, sometimes getting home only to turn right around and go back. That’s ten or fifteen minutes each way, so I spent at least an hour driving instead of working. I’ve had similar scenarios with home improvement projects. No, I can’t do it, and you’re really not that much help. I’m sure the auto parts store guys thought I was an idiot. We were basically on a first name basis by the end of it.

But actually I felt like an idiot, but not because I struggled to get it done. I was very quickly reminded how bad my temper is when things don’t go my way. I mean, it was bad. Really bad. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to hear the things I was saying (and thinking) while I was in a tight squeeze or couldn’t figure out how to get to the next step. Anger (or rage?) rose up in me so quick I didn’t know what hit me, and that was surprising and disturbing. Suddenly there wasn’t much love, joy, or peace, and definitely no patience.

Here’s what bothered me: I don’t know if I was more disappointed or surprised. I’ve been following Jesus for some time now and I thought I would be better at handling a challenge like this. I expected at least some fruit to show up. Have you ever thought that? You react to something in a way that is so unlike Christ that you think, “Have I been paying attention at all…to anything??” This isn’t just true in a difficult project like a car repair for a quasi-mechanic, but in every area of life. I sometimes look around at my lack of ability to control my appetites, my desires, or my reactions and I have to be honest, I get a little discouraged that I haven’t been transformed a little more into Christ’s image.

As I’ve been reflecting about it though, I think I’ve only been seeing half the story when it comes to maturity. I have been thinking that as I mature as a Christian, God’s work in my life would change me as a person so that I become fundamentally different, who I am gets changed from jerk to non-jerk. In this line of thinking, the assumption is that more you walk with God and learn his ways the better your choices will be and the less likely you will be to react with rage when you don’t get your way. Makes sense, right?

Well, this view of maturity may be true to some extent, but it’s only half the story. There are other things at play. No matter how “mature” you think you are, you always reap what you sow. So if you’re not sowing to the Spirit like Paul says in Romans 8, you won’t get spiritual results when difficult times come. Doesn’t matter if that difficulty is disease or a long line at the grocery store.

I don’t think Christian growth works the same as physical growth. In physical growth, or the development of a person, you come into the world as the most dependent of all humans and your job is to grow to become more independent. Feed yourself, dress yourself, earn money etc. I would say that in Christian maturity it is actually the opposite. We come to God as rebellious children, desiring nothing more than our own independence and freedom. As we grow with him, our job is to become more and more dependent on him and less likely to depend on ourselves to make it all work.

That’s where I go wrong. I tend to assume that since I’ve been “in the game” for a while, I can make it happen on my own. I stop sowing because I assume I don’t have to. But walking with God is more about abiding that adapting. God’s plan is not to have me walk with him just long enough for me to learn how to do it without him. I’m not supposed to be an apprentice of Christ I am a disciple, and there’s a big difference. An apprentice learns from the master just long enough to strike out on his own and become a master himself. Apply this to God and it’s pretty ridiculous. Even if I could grow to the point that I didn’t need God’s help anymore, what happens after that? There is no other outcome other than I become my own god. Since I know that isn’t the plan, I have to go back to the fact that dependence is primary. I never outgrow my need for him.

Jesus said “If you abide in me, you will bear much fruit.” If I find myself reacting to life’s circumstances in a less-than-Jesus-like way, it’s probably because I am not abiding in him. And if I’m not abiding, I shouldn’t be surprised when the fruit I get is nasty. For me and my sinful self, nasty is natural. I have to plug in to the source of the good stuff if I want to see it working in my life.

The crazy part is that God already sees the ugly side of me, and that’s the side he loves. It’s beyond incredible. The older I get the more I realize that God’s grace is the only thing that makes me different from the worst version of myself. It really doesn’t matter how long I have been doing this, in fact that thinking will probably get you into trouble really quick. Walking in the Spirit requires a constant awareness to where the Spirit is leading, and left to my own devices I go quickly (and embarrassingly) off the deep end. Even though I keep trying to make that terrible person better, at the end of the day I can’t win. Only Jesus can, and has, won that battle to make me something completely different in him. All I have to do is learn to stay right there where it’s his power and not mine.

 

Advent 1: Who Hates to Wait?

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Who likes to wait? Not me, I can tell you that for sure. I want my answers, my results, my dinner and my coffee and I want it five minutes ago. Patience isn’t something that comes easily for most people.

This past Sunday marked the first Sunday of the season of Advent, the beginning of the church year. You might recognize the term “advent” from the little cardboard calendars that give you a piece of candy every day during the month of December. But Advent is much more than candy. This four-week season leading up to Christmas dates back as far as the 8th century and focuses on the coming of Christ, both in the celebration of the Nativity and in the anticipation of the coming reign of Christ. The word advent literally means “arrival,” and the season is marked by themes of waiting, expecting, anticipating.

I must confess that I find myself pulled in two directions by this brief season. One side of me wants to slow down and detach from the busyness and chaos that inevitably marks the weeks prior to Christmas and to meditate on Christ’s coming to earth and being born in a manger. I want to get all I can out of Christmas by celebrating Christmas during Advent. But technically the focus of Advent is on anticipation itself, the absence of Christ and the desire that he would come and invade our darkness. It’s almost as if we put ourselves in the place of the waiting world in the hours before the angels announced the Savior’s birth.
This forced wait is tricky because we know the Good News: Christ has come and invaded the darkness and shown the light. But there is a “not yet” part to the story as well because it’s also true that Christ has yet to come and apply the fullness of redemption to the hurting world. So we wait.

Now, waiting is no fun I’ll admit, but if we honestly take a look at it we might realize there is some good to it. We live in a culture infatuated with the instant – we love to get everything we want whenever we want it. We all have the friend or relative that is really hard to buy gifts for because they get what they want whenever they want it. They aren’t waiting for anything.

But think about the joy that comes from waiting. When I was young I couldn’t wait for Christmas Morning…then to get out of high school…then out of college…then married…then…the list could go on. It would have been an awful bore to have Christmas every day. I think C. S. Lewis got it right when he said that joy is found in the desire for the thing we long for, no just the thing itself. We actually diminish our joy if we never have to wait.

Have you ever denied yourself something on purpose? This is what the church calls fasting, although it tends to slow things down quite a bit. Saying no to sugar or TV or meat for a while is hard because we want what we want. But oh the sweetness of that steak after the season of waiting.

So let me encourage you to give waiting a chance this Advent season. Don’t rush into the season, pressing your foot so far to the floor that you speed right by all the good stuff. Let waiting be a blessing, knowing that the joy of desire fulfilled is promised to come.

 

My Thanks for Three of the Best Lessons I’ve Learned

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Do you ever just feel grateful? I think that gratitude is oxygen for the soul, similar to the effect a timely word of encouragement has on you when you’re feeling spent. Seriously, give it a try. “Count your blessings” is only cheesy because we don’t do it. When we do, we realize it actually works. God designed us to depend on one another and function in community, learning things about him and about ourselves through our relationships.

Today I was thinking about how thankful I am to be where I am doing what I do. But none of us got to where we are without a little help from people who cared enough to invest in our lives. I am, like you, indebted to many dear friends for some valuable lessons that were likely hard to learn but are now a part of who I am. Here are three.

First, I want to thank my dear friend John for teaching me to be a problem solver. “Don’t stay in the problem, stay in the solution” is what he drove into my skull over and over again. It took a while to sink in, but now I know a little bit more of what it means to take action, to move things, to get out there and DO SOMETHING to move things forward. “You can’t think your way into good living, you can only live your way into good thinking.” This wisdom has become a priceless to me.

Second, I want to thank my friend Jason for teaching me to have the hard conversation no matter how difficult, awkward, or otherwise intimidating it might be. I haven’t known many people who are better at this than Jason. I have seen him handle awkwardness, difficulty, challenge, busyness, and what would otherwise be extremely stressful scenarios in every area of life with poise, wisdom and determination. I’m hoping some of that got transferred to me from being around him.

Third, I want to thank my friend Robert for pushing me to set goals and step out and risk. You can’t always know everything about where you’re going or what you’re going to do without starting. I can say with confidence I wouldn’t be where I am today without the pushing and prodding I’ve gotten from this wise mentor. Sometimes you just have to begin, and that releases the knowledge, resources and motivation that you need to accomplish your goal. What a gift it is to have friends who will challenge you.

 

There are many others. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my wife, my parents, my in-laws, my high school English teacher or Dr. Young from my freshman year of college history class. Not to mention the countless authors who feel like they are my lifelong friends and teachers. It helps me to think about them often, to remember their faces and their names and what they did that made such a mark on my life.

Who are your people? What did they teach you? Let me encourage you to make a habit of being grateful. And if you really want to bless the people who have marked your life, share your gratitude with them in a thoughtful way. It’s the kind of habit that binds us together as a people who need each other. And it’s how God made us to be.