A crazy kind of joy

CrazyYears ago, when I signed on the dotted line to spend my life as a youth pastor-minister-church program director-counselor, I was pretty clueless.  I had a ton of enthusiasm, energy, and a genuine desire to make a difference in kids’ lives for their well-being and the good of the Kingdom.

Camps, long bus rides, Bible studies, crazy games, singing around campfires, mission trips, conversations over cokes after schoolthese, and a hundred other similar activities certainly gave definition to my weekly schedule for years.

But there was more.  Lots more.  And nobody warned me.

Just below the surface of smiles and laughter was something differentthe place where the stuff of real life exists.  And it has been in these real life dramas that I’ve so often found myself as a supporting actor.

Disappointments.

Cancer.

Failure.

Rejection.

Depression.

Addictions.

Mental illness.

Job loss.

Unplanned pregnancy.

Miscarriage.

Darkness.

Fear.

Doubt.

Accidents.

Sickness.

Death.

Divorce.

Loneliness.

Suicide.

Scandal.

Abuse.

Tragedy.

Loss.

When I was young, I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what God had led me to do.  But over the years, it has become clear.

If you choose to walk through life with people and dare to wade into the deeper end (as opposed to spending your relationship energy playing in the shallow end of relationships), sooner than later, you learn that hell can break loose at any time. 

People can be messy, broken, complicated, hypocritical, wounded, afraid, imperfect, sinful. And when they rub elbows with other messy people, life can get pretty raw.

But this is what sharing life is all about.  This is what church is all about.  This is why God became flesh and lived among us.

This is the joy of being a follower of Jesus.

(idea for this post)

The Waiting Room

The waiting roomI visit hospital waiting rooms more than most people.

(Somewhere along the line, visiting people in the hospital got rolled into the job description of the minister.  There are probably some good reasons for this.  There is also some really faulty thinking, both theological and practical, associated with this practice.  I’ll leave that discussion for another time.)

I’m camped out in a hospital waiting room again this morning.  It’s packed with people waiting to hear news about their loved ones.  I’m sitting next to a man about my age.  His wife is having some pretty serious surgery and he’s scared.  I can see it in his body language and I can hear it in his voice.  He’s been on the phone to another family member most of the time we’ve been here.  Maybe we’ll talk later.

There’s another familywife, kids, both sets of grandparentswaiting on news about their husband/dad/son.  They are masking their concern with lots of “family” conversation.  The kids are buried in their computers with headphones on.  I wonder what’s really going on in their hearts.

There’s lots of hugging and soft words.  Nervous laughter and stretching and yawning and pacing back and forth to the coffee machine.  Waiting room hosts try to make it feel like home.  Nice try.

All who are here share one thing in common:

We are all completely out of control.  Sitting in hospital waiting rooms, family can do nothing.  And they know it.  Their loved ones are in God’s handsor doctor’s hands…depending on how you look at it.  Some are praying.  Some are trying to think positive thoughts.  Some are avoiding thinking at all.

Hospital waiting rooms are where people are forced to face what they believe.  About God.  About death.  About hope.  About fear.  About the future.  For some, the waiting room is embraced.  The wait is good and the unknown is not the enemy.  For others, the wait is dark and lonelyeven if they are surrounded by friends and family.

The hospital waiting room exposes people.  Maybe not to those who are sharing the space with you, but you are exposed none-the-less.  Your fears are laid bare.  Your powerlessness is magnified.  There is nothing you can do butwait.  Oh, you can pray and read or write, but more than anything else, you are left to be reminded about what you believe and where you place your trustwhile you wait.

That’s why it’s called a waiting room.

Going to hell…again.

hellknowing that most of you don’t linger on my blog to read many of the comments, i thought i’d share with you my response to two really good ones…comments that challenged me to work hard… not just to be clear in my response… but to be clear in my thinking and understanding.

i’m really grateful when people care enough to question or even disagree.  it’s the only way iron is sharpened.

the first comment asked me to give my understanding of one of jesus’ most difficult teachings in luke 16:19-31.  you might want to take a few minutes and read the passage before you read my response.  here it is:

Here’s my short response (realizing that all parts of it can, and should be, challenged). First, although there are some who believe Luke 16:19-31 is an accounting of an actual historical event, I believe this story falls into the category of a parable…Jesus’ primary method of teaching in the NT. I have always taught (and been taught) to be very careful to avoid ascribing literal meaning to every detail of a parable, but to look for the over-arching meaning. This parable appears to me to be about the deceitfulness and deadliness of making riches your god, rather than seeing the parable as the description of what hell is going to look like.

Second, even if we agreed this parable gave a “real”, rather than a “figurative” description, the problem is with what it is describing. It is not describing the final judgment or the final destination of the wicked…it’s describing what goes on in Hades. Trust me, I am no expert on this! But in my limited study of Hades (and its OT counterpart, Sheol), I’ve always understood it to be a temporary place…the place that the dead go to wait the final judgment. For the righteous dead, it’s a good place. For the unrighteous dead, it’s a bad place. Some even believe its a place where the unrighteous might even get a second chance. (I’m not sure I buy that, but many believers through the ages have). Either way, it seems obvious to me that this story has nothing to do with the final judgment. Its a story that speaks of the torment that would take place for the wicked during that temporary, in-between time before final end is played out. To me, it does not speak of eternal, unending torment.

the second was a comment regarding the definition of words translated “hell” in the new testament…as well as the nature and extent of god’s judgment.  here’s my response:

I appreciate your struggle with my interpretation and position on this matter. None of us are able to come up with definitions and interpretations completely on our own. Years ago, I submitted myself to a set of scholars, Bible interpreters, pastors and theologians who helped frame my understanding of Scripture on this matter. I understand fully that people do not all see the Bible alike, nor do they always come to the same conclusions and understanding of Biblical definitions. We all subject ourselves to sources of information and wisdom and have to do our best to pick and choose those we trust for the most accurate rendering of truth. I am no different from anyone else on this. I read, study, compare, criticize, question and ultimately choose who and what I believe.

My understanding of the word gehenna does not include the word “unending” in it…though I do agree it appears to refer to the “final” judgment. In my study, there seems to be a rich Jewish history to the word that is somewhat complicated and very specific to the Jews in Bible times. I have come to understand gehenna to refer to a “smoldering dump” where trash and refuse was sent to burn. But my understanding of trash burning is that though a pile of trash may smolder and burn indefinitely, it will only keep burning because new trash is thrown on…the original trash eventually burns up and is no more.

As far as “the lights just going out” not being enough punishment for those who don’t know or experience the love of God through Christ…I just have to disagree. To get to the end of 50-60-70 years of painful, disappointing, unpredictable, up and down human existence… and then miss out on an unending, limitless, eternal and everlasting perfection in the presence of our Creator…well, that seems like over-the-top justice to me. My mind simply cannot comprehend…nor has my study of Scripture presented me with a God who needs to inflict unending torture and suffering on top of the most heinous punishment I could imagine: to be left out.

To me, justice is fully served by God cutting off his relationship with his unbelieving and unrepentant creation forever. And just like when the door of the ark closed, I believe the unredeemed will know they have missed out on the Great Banquet as their last experience of consciousness. How much worse does it need to be?

my hope is that this dialogue has motivated you to take your study of god’s word…and his command to be salt and light in a dark world…more seriously.  remember, if you want to dig deeper into this topic, i gave you some pretty good resources in the previous post to begin your journey.

Going to hell

hellmy early church upbringing had a singular focus:  death.

now that’s not quite as morbid as it sounds.  but it’s still reality.  oh…we had our potlucks and vacation bible schools and choir practice and church work days and prayer meetings and fellowship nights.  we still did lots of church stuff in church ways and much of  it was formative and laid the foundation for my faith to grow.

but make no mistake.  our focus was on death.

to be fair, the focus was really on what was going to happen after we died.  in comparison to all of eternity, these measly 72.3 years we get to live on earth seems pretty short.  the real issue was always whether i would make it to heaven when i died or whether i would exist in eternal and unrelenting pain and torture after death.

talk about scaring the hell out of a young kid!

this discussion deserves a lot more than i am going to give today, but here’s the simple version:  in spite of its popularity… and apparent biblical justification…i haven’t believed in the concept of a literal “lake of fire” or endless, conscious suffering for those who don’t know the grace of god through faith in jesus, for over thirty years.

i do, however, take the words of john 3:16 (and many, many others like it), quite literally.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

i believe that those who die without believing in jesus perish.  perish means to cease from existence.  i believe in eternal life, but not eternal death.  in spite of the passages that have traditionally been used to teach that hell is not really death, but an eternal life of conscious punishment,  i have come to believe that those who die without experiencing the life god intends will simply die forever.

But sinners shall be altogether destroyed;  the future of the wicked shall be cut off.  Psalm 37:38

i realize this position is not without controversy, especially because it is not consistent with the popular view presented in the church and society.  but i am not alone in this conversation.  if you are interested in further study, here is a good link to a paper written by dr. glenn peoples.  also, here is an awesome book written by edward fudge (probably the foremost modern apologist for this position).  finally, here is a link to a great website on rethinking the whole concept of hell.  these are pretty cool resources.

i hope this whets your appetite for study.  don’t be afraid to rethink this.  it could change your whole outlook on being a follower of christ.

for the better.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  John 10:10

The undignified reality

death-and-lifeif you have recently lost a loved one… or if you are walking the end-of-life journey with someone right now,  this post might come across a little insensitive.  i’m sorry.  the last thing in the world i would ever want to do is make your struggle more difficult.   it definitely won’t hurt my feelings if you skip reading this today.  we’re friends.  i’ll get over it.

i have had the honor of being near a number of people as they walked through death’s door.   it happened again this week, as i lost a good friend.  he was 70 years old.  his two wives had already preceded him in death.   i’m sure he had outlived most of his friends.  pretty sure that’s what happens when you reach a great old age.

as it nearly always is,  the moment of death was difficult for the family that was present…especially the ones who were younger.  the instant when the last breath is taken can never be fully prepared for.   no matter how many times i witness it,  there are no words to adequately describe the feelings.  it is overwhelming.

i’ve read about…and even personally shared…in the end-of-life experience in another culture.  i think many of them do it better than we do.  most of the deaths i have shared here in our culture are strangely awkward.  and horribly undignified.   this person who was once full of personality and emotion and life, is reduced to a shell…sometimes barely hanging on for days or weeks or even longer.

the tent that once housed purpose and vision and love and faith is now empty and void.  it is often very ugly.  sometimes the person appears grotesque and looks nothing like what we remember.   some will say there is a quiet beauty found in the passing of life to death.  i’m probably not one of those.

so many times i have reminded family and friends their loved one is no longer there.  the essence of what made them human is gone…the body has been drained of its intention.  the soul and the spirit has gone to its final destination.   and that moment…that realization…is shocking.

some run from the moment.  they shut down.  they close off.  they move quickly to another place where the feelings can be suppressed or denied.  they will tell you that things are ok, but you they are not.  these folks need kindness and patience and room.

others emote uncontrollably.  the shock and sadness is almost too much to bear.  for some, IT IS too much and it takes years and years to reconcile their loss…if they ever do.

still others seem to move comfortably through the various stages of grief and go on about life in a healthy way.

no matter what our feelings and response to the death moment,  it is screaming for us to take notice.   for the one who has died, there is no more time to make changes.  there is no chance to make amends.  life and opportunities and potentials are over.  whatever was done and however life was lived,  eternity’s possibilities are now closed.

but not for the living.

as long as there is breath, there is time.  time to make things right.  time to answer questions and face doubts.  time to wrestle with issues of faith and reason.  time to decide if life is nothing more than a superficial crapshoot or a reality that is potentially full of purpose and design and worth and fulfillment that flows from the heart of a creator.

when we are teenagers, death is what happens in the movies or on video games (unless we are shocked into reality by an untimely passing).  when we are in our 20s, 30s and even our 40s,  we live as if we are invincible.  work and family demand nearly everything our puny hearts can muster.  death is simply not an option (unless, again, we are shocked into reality by an untimely passing).

when you get into your 50s and beyond, death cannot be ignored.  for crying out loud, people younger than me are dying all the time these days.  and though it is sometimes a surprise,  nobody is ever really shocked.  58 year-old guys die all the time.

i’m 59, btw.

death will never be my friend.  when it comes, i hope i look like i have a little dignity left.  or at least i’m still listening to some rock and roll in my earphones.  but the reality is,  if i hold on long enough, i probably won’t have much control over what i look like or what i’m doing.   (chris and corey…accept my apologies now.)

but i have no fear.  my confidence is in god’s word and his promises that have proved true time and time again over the course of my life.   there is no doubt that jesus came to give me life.  death will merely be a change of venue.   how cool is that?

so what about you?  if you’re reading this,  you’ve still got time to make things right.  what’s stopping you?

Being Ready

Sorry I haven’t been writing lately. This is the first time in forever that I have simply been too busy to write. Some of you may have missed it. But you haven’t missed it more than me.

Over the years, writing has become my friend. It’s therapeutic. It’s healing. It’s a safe place for me…even tho you get to invade it. I’m glad to be back.

As those of you that are close know, the North Point family is sharing in the tragedy of one of our own this week. It is not the first. It will certainly not be the last. Tragedy and sadness and sorrow is what bonds us all together. Even more than joy and happiness and shared interests. A hurting heart knows no strangers.

I said this on Sunday. I want to say it again. Every time I watch someone go through the valley of darkness, I ask myself, “Am I ready to face this same kind of pain? Is my heart and mind prepared for the onslaught of emotion that inevitably come with great loss?”

Are you?

Is your foundation solid? Are your support systems in place? Do you have the kind of friends who will dare to speak truth into your soul, when you are unable to do it for yourself? Is your your faith placed firmly in the sovereign stability of a God who is fully revealed in the Word and who never changes…or will you be left clinging to a mystical god of your own making?

Tragedy and death seldom give us much warning. Catastrophic change doesn’t stop by a couple of weeks in advance to ask our permission. It just happens. Life…and death just happen.

Don’t be foolish. Be ready. Be alert. Be sober-minded.

And be ready to stand by those who aren’t.

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A reality check this afternoon

when i got out of high school, i looked at my friends who were getting married and thought i knew more than they did.  i thought they were too young or too unprepared or that they were just stupid for saying goodbye to their freedom at such an early age.

but then i got married.  and all the judgment and criticism i freely gave to them became strangely prophetic for me.   i needed to put up or shut up.  and thus, a trend in my life was started.

at a young age, i started giving advice.  oh, i was covered under the cloak of ministry or education or counseling…but it was clearly advice.  and at every turn,  i have stood at the crossroads of needing to take my own advice.

before i had children, i helped parents understand their kids.  i didn’t know it from raising my own, but before my first son was born, i had logged more hours with teenagers than the average parent would spend throughout their lifetime.   from experience, i knew what kids were like.  i knew their characteristics and patterns.  i knew youth culture.  i knew what made them tick.  and i was helpful to parents.

once i had my own,  i needed to be willing to take my own advice.  and it wasn’t always easy.

with just a few years of marriage under my belt,  i started counseling married couples.  husbands and wives with deep dysfunction.  the kind that bleeds over into every area of their lives.  i helped couples communicate and resolve conflict and problem solve and grow deeper.

i have been married 37 years and i have had to constantly take my own advice.  and it hasn’t always been easy.

i’ve made a career of counseling people through financial crisis.  many of those people made significantly more money than i did.  but it didn’t make the truth any less…true.  or the reality of their pain and fear any less paralyzing.

throughout our life together, wanda and i have faced some financial mountains that seemed impossible to climb…and i have been forced to take my own advice.   and it was definitely not easy.

i have helped parents face the rebellions and failures and mistakes and questionable decisions and struggles and sicknesses…and successes…of their children.   i have spent countless hours helping parents build, fix, restore, strengthen, and heal brokenness and distance in their relationships with their kids.  it happens to the best of families.

as a parent, i have been called to take my own advice.  it was never easy.

long before it happened to my own boys, i walked with many parents who watched their kids grow up and get married.  i carefully tried to guide parents through their changing roles and evolving relationships with their adult children.  i helped them embrace the idea of becoming an “in-law” and the dynamics of merging a new, extended family into their own.

and then it happened to me.  twice.  and i desperately needed to listen to my own advice.   and the listening hasn’t always been easy.

it’s crazy to think how young and inexperienced i was when i first started helping parents wrestle with the complexities of becoming grandparents…and how often they came to me for counsel and support through their struggles.  it’s almost laughable to remember that i was helping parents with what it was going to be like to watch their own kids raise kids…and how it was going to feel to be on the outside as a spectator of that thing they did so well when they were younger.

and then it happened to me and i have had to work hard every day to remember the truth and live by the advice i have always given others.  and there is no way this is easy.

one of the greatest privileges i have been given in my life is to walk with people through death.  to have the joy and struggle of helping people face their mortality…and to challenge them to believe in the truth of god’s revealed word as their only hope…has been the greatest of the great experiences of my life.

i am not dead yet.  far from it, i hope.  but it is one of the few life experiences i have yet to encounter personally.

and i’m glad i’ve got some advice to follow.