Category Archives: Spirituality

2011: what I will most remember

Remembrance is a biblical mandate. The people of Israel were instructed to remember the mighty and providential work of YHWH- even to construct monuments and memorials so as to not forget what He had done for them. The Psalms are littered with recitations of God’s action in human history. Jesus broke bread with his disciples at the Last Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We are prone to forget. To forget the work of God in our midst. And our forgetfulness is not harmless in God’s sight. Forgetfulness breeds discontentment and dissatisfaction. And somewhere deep in our hearts there’s a battle raging between the humble choice to remember (and thus be content) and the selfish choice to forget (and thus be discontent). In Psalm 78, the author gives a laundry list of ways God intervened miraculously for Israel, but laments that the men of Ephraim “forgot what He had done, the wonders he had shown them (v.11). As this psalm attests, Israel would remember and worship, only to forget and be disobedient, then remember again, only to forget again. The remembering always led to right worship; the forgetting always led to rebellion and divine judgement. The relationship is clear.

We remember, that we might worship. Is not the essence of worship the act of remembering God’s work in the past and present and his promise to redeem all in the future? So I’ve been asking myself this question: what will I remember from 2011 that leads me to worship? Here goes:

  • I’ll remember being with my dear friend Rob Warren as we sat next to our dying friend Aaron. We shared our love for him, our sorrow for what cancer took from him, and our confidence in the redemption that awaited him. Never before had I experienced such depth of emotion and the visceral presence of Jesus as I did in that room that day. Aaron died the next day and my faith is still being tested and transformed because of it. I have written a longer post about Aaron here.
  • I’ll remember learning to be a father to Mason alongside an amazing woman- my wife Tiffany- who teaches me daily the joy of giving away your life. I’ll remember moments where God transformed my selfishness, frustration, and impatience into something that resembles- even if just slightly- the heart of the Father toward me. I’ll remember laughing with Tiffany at the crazy faces our son makes and the way he dances with his arms more than his legs, his insatiable desire to have books read to him, the way he says “momma” and “dadda” and the way he looks at me as I rock him to sleep at night.
  • I’ll remember watching our church plant drop the word “plant” and become simply a church. I’ll remember being in the pool with Justin Hendricks and a whole bunch of people as they publicly proclaimed their new faith in Jesus. I’ll remember the group of people who hung out in our cabin at Colorado LT to discuss theology and life. I’ll remember having the realization that our church wasn’t just led by staff anymore but by an amazing group of college students who are naive enough to believe Jesus for big things.
  • I’ll remember realizing that saying goodbye is an unavoidable reality of God’s Kingdom. I had big dreams for Brian Regueiro. He and I were going to do a church plant and do life and ministry together for years. Then God called him to the work of justice in DC. I’ll remember the journey God took me on to a place of joy and excitement in dying to my own dreams for sake of Christ’s Kingdom. I’ll remember realizing that the scope of God’s mission is so much larger than collegiate church planting, important as it may be and confident as I am that it’s my calling for now. I’ll remember learning that the mark of my discipleship is not just in how many people stay part of our ministry but also how many are sent out to labor for Christ elsewhere.
  • I’ll remember learning all over again what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I’ll remember being enamored again by the person of Jesus and the mission to which he calls us. I’ll remember doing teachings and hearing teachings from the Sermon on the Mount that reminded me of the inescapably exhaustive work of redemption Jesus wants to work in my life, the life of my friends, our church, and this world.

Saying goodbye to a friend

I remember the feeling in my gut as I walked through the student union at BGSU. I was anxious. I was scared. Not the horror movie scared but the fear of rejection and humiliation scared. I felt unprepared and unqualified for what I was about to do. I had done it a handful of times before, but somehow the intimidation and awkwardness of it never subsided. I was looking for someone with whom I could start a spontaneous conversation. A conversation about Jesus. You know, the type of outreach that receives equal skepticism (if not disapproval) from believers and nonbelievers alike.

I saw a guy reading the school newspaper. He was sitting by himself. He dressed like me. He had short hair like me. He seemed clean-cut like me. He wore cool glasses (not like me, much to my dismay). I remember thinking “I can talk to this guy.” I led with “Hi, I’m Matthew from h2o, the church on campus. Would you mind if I asked you some spiritual questions?” He agreed. I was noticeably relieved by his willingness to talk with me.

What happened in the thirty minute conversation that followed makes sense only if there is a God above who is spinning this world with a purpose and plan for us all. I learned that my new friend Aaron had been raised in an unashamedly Baptist home in Missouri. He could remember a time when, as a young boy, he invited Jesus into his heart. In high school, he went through the religious motions- church, youth group, summer camps, and Christian concerts. Yet as he sat telling me about his life with an openness and rawness that still amazes me to this day, he admitted that those days were a thing of the past. He was living as a prodigal far from home- in northwest Ohio of all places. He had unintentionally become the stereotypical college guy- went to the parties, chased the girls, drank the beer, ditched the classes, etc. And he was left feeling lost and lonely.

I told him a bit of my story. I had been a prodigal, too. Much more prodigal than him, actually. Then he said something striking: he told me God was answering a prayer as we spoke that day. You see, the reality of his brokenness had hit him that same morning. He prayed to God for the first time in a while. His prayer was simple, as I recall him telling me. Aaron asked God to show him that He was real. He wasn’t convinced anymore. He wanted to believe, to be sure. But he wasn’t sure he could. Something had happened since moving off to college. But somehow, as our Creator orchestrated this divine intersection of our two lives at a table on the second floor of the BGSU student union, his doubt disappeared. His prayer had been answered. God was real after all. Hours after his prayer was uttered a nervous guy trying to be a missional Christian asked him if they could have a conversation. And both of our lives would be forever changed. To claim coincidence here would be an offense to the sovereignty of the One who dreamed this interaction from eternity past.

We became close friends over the next few years. Our lives were inextricably intertwined. We shared life. We did ministry together. We had those rare life-changing conversations. We had a depth and realness to our relationship that came so naturally. I remember when he told me he had feelings for Ali, a girl in our Bible study group. I remember a few years later praying with him in a small back room at the church just moments before he married Ali. Then I moved to Kent to plant a church. Our friendship changed. But our love for each other remained. The awe over how we first met that day in the student union never faded, and it created in us a bond that couldn’t broken by distance.

I was sitting in a seminary class when I got the text telling me that Aaron was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s ironic that I was sitting in a place that is supposed to give answers to questions about faith and life. Yet there are no token answers for why a 26-year-old would get cancer. No amount of theological precision offers hope in the midst of the reality of disease. Persistent headaches brought Aaron to the doctor and tests were run that revealed the devastating news. It was cancerous. It was in an advanced stage. It was largely inoperable. His prognosis was staggeringly bad.

As much as I remain amazed at how we met, that memory will fade long before the memory of saing goodbye to Aaron. His fight with cancer ended in May. On that day he met face-to-face the God who orchestrated our friendship and rescued him from the emptiness of this world. The day before he died I visited him with my dear friend Rob- Aaron’s closest friend in Bowling Green. With the door closed and Aaron unresponsive on a hospital bed situated in his bedroom, Rob and I told him how much we loved him and how he had impacted us. Not once had he questioned God in the midst of his disease. Not once had I heard a complaint or a curse. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such faith- it was innocently childlike and incredibly mature at the same time. We talked about old memories- as many funny ones as serious. And we talked about the glory that awaited him. When I spoke, Rob cried. When Rob spoke, I cried. It was both incredibly sad and entirely beautiful. Even my words here can’t approach the weight of what happened in that room.

Aaron’s legacy far exceeds his years on this earth. There are so many ways he has impacted me. Let me share just one.He has helped me to grow up. I live in a world of college students. A world where tears are typically the result of romantic break-ups. Where tragedy exists only in film. Where death is a fairy-tale. Where faith is stifled by the comfort and ease of our lives. Where desperate need for Jesus is a mystery. Yet today as I think of Aaron, I remember that there is a reality beyond what I see each day . And while I am called to this place, I must live beyond its borders. And I must invite others to this new place of depth. To journey beyond the superficiality and immaturity that, though unavoidable, is not insurmountable. To a place where we must painfully reckon with the tragedy and evil of this world in order to taste of the goodness and power of Jesus.

Too cool of a Christian?

Brett McCracken recently wrote an interesting article for the Wall Street Journal titledĀ The Perils of Hipster Christianity wherein he points out the danger of a faith that so pursues relevance that it loses distinction from the broader culture. In the great tension and balance of engaging culture while still remaining unashamedly Christ-centered, hipster Christians’ greater concern is the prior. McCracken actually wrote a whole book on the topic, titled Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide. But he’s not the first to cover the topic. A few years ago I read Dick Staub’s excellent book titled The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite, which, as its title suggests, both critiques hipster Christianity and provides a way forward for engaging culture in a way that honors and even deepens our faith.

For fun, take the quiz on the Hipster Christianity website to find out whether or not you’re a hipster.

Reflections from a lake vacation

I just returned from an annual week-long hiatus with my wife’s family to a small lake in northern Indiana. It was a relaxing time. There is just something about being in or near the water that soothes the soul. What I look forward to most on these vacations is the opportunity to wake up early to read and think while sitting on the end of the dock (coffee in hand, of course). With work and responsibilities far from my mind and no busyness commandeering my life, I more easily sense the presence of the Lord. And I am more easily able to reckon with my own brokenness. In the early morning there are no speed boats making noise and waves, just a few small fishing boats trolling around in search of bass and blue gill. I typically spend some time reading Scripture then move on to a book that I choose months in advance after (too) much contemplation. This year I read a theological biography of the missiologist, missionary, ecumenist, and scholar Lesslie Newbigin. A life change- the addition of six-month old boy- significantly slowed the pace of my reading, a small price to pay for the blessing of being his dad!

But I struggled to really engage with the book. I found myself distracted by a tension brewing inside of me. Not a new one, though. In fact, it’s one that visits me every year during this vacation.

I marvel at the beauty of the homes on the lake. Then I think about all the fun and anticipation and excitement that accompanies these vacations. My mind fast-forwards to a time when our kids will begin their lives out of our home. I wonder where they’ll live and how often I’ll see them and my grandchildren. A desire rises up in me to provide a place (other than my own home) for my family to congregate and make memories together. As I consider this period of time in my life, the comfort of “lake living” becomes very appealing. There is an ease and a laziness to life to which I am drawn.

The only “logical” conclusion I can come to is that I need to buy a lake house someday. Nevermind the fact that most houses on this not-overly-glamorous lake cost at least $500,000 with the larger homes (able to accommodate multiple families) pushing a million dollars. So the tension that rages within me is this question: Could I ever buy one of these houses?

Passages of Scripture that warn of the danger- indeed the deadliness- of money and possessions come to mind. I wonder what a half a million dollars could do for a community in a poverty-stricken area of the world- where food and education and medicine are scarce. The juxtaposition of the comfort and coziness of lake living with the nightmare that some people live everyday is staggering to me. I cannot hold the two in tension.

Yet I think, “There is nothing wrong with wanting to make memories as a family.” Children are a gift from God and because Tiffany and I will encourage our children to pursue their callings no matter where they lead them, owning a lake home that will reconnect our family is an admirable desire, right?! So long as I maintain a high commitment to giving a portion of my income to the work of the Kingdom, I am fine, right?!

How do we navigate these issues? How do we engage these questions with theological and biblical concern? What central truths form the framework within which we wrestle with them? What, if any, passages of Scripture might speak directly to this tension? And most importantly (for me, at least), how do we draw out and reckon with those desires in us which stand in contrast to the Christian life attested to in Scripture?

I guess I should try to answer these. Next post.

Journals of Jim Elliot

Years ago I received a book titled The Journals of Jim Elliot, a collection of devotional thoughts, personal reflections, and comments on Scripture from a man whose story has touched millions of lives. Fresh out of college, newly married with a young child, Jim and four other men and their spouses and children moved to Ecuador to begin mission work with the Waodani, an Amerindian tribe never before exposed to the Gospel. All five men were killed. Later, family members of the martyred men, including Jim’s widow Elisabeth, returned to reach out to the tribe. Two of the men responsible for the murders converted to Christianity. This amazing story has been reenacted in a film titled End of the Spear (trailerĀ here) and documented in a second film titled Beyond the Gates of Splendor (trailer here). If you’ve never read or seen this story, I would encourage you to check out either of these films or do some reading online.

Today, for the first time in a few years, I took the book off the shelf and read it. I was struck by this journal entry, written by Jim when he was a junior in college. It reveals how passionate he was about becoming a man who exhibited the nature of Jesus Christ. May you be challenged by his words as I was today:

October 27, 1948: Sense a great need of my Father tonight. I do not feel needy [for God] enough. Sufficiency in myself is a persistent thought, though I try to judge it. Lord Jesus, tender lover of this brute soul, wilt Thou make me weak? I long to understand Thy sufficiency and my inadequacy, and how can I sense this except in experience? So, Lord, Thou knowest what I am able to bear. Send trouble that I might know peace; send anxiety that I might know rest in Thee. Send hard things that I may learn to rely on Thy dissolving them. Strange askings, and I do not know what I speak, but my desire to toward Thee- anything that will intensify and make me tender, Savior. I desire to be like Thee, Thou knowest.