Monday, June 30, 2014

Death by Living




This represents thoughts and highlights from the book Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson, personalized, and alongside meditation in Psalm 90. I am greatly indebted to Wilson for his words, and to my Lord always for His word. I pray that it would be encouragement to and motivation for you. This is part 3 of 3.

--- "Cause of death: life. May it be the truth." ---

GLADNESS IN AFFLICTION

Being made glad in difficult times may not seem like a positive implication of numbering our days and making the most out of life. How about just taking away the difficult times? How about just not taking away my friend? But when you understand that affliction is inevitable, and not meaningless, then the fact that God is willing and able to give us joy and gladness in these times is incredible. God gives us the means to not mope, or lose ourselves in despair. He gives us joy and gladness! And not just for a time or a season, but for as many days as we are afflicted! That is what the Bible says. Even if it’s all of them.

What would gladness look like in the loss of Gene, for example? For me, it comes when I remind myself that even in the affliction, even in the sadness, there are things that are true and unchanging, and that are good. That is not just a mental or intellectual assurance. It comforts my entire being. If it doesn’t yours, consider the alternative. What if there was nothing sure, no truth or concept of reality that could always be reliable and a foundation? What if the bad times were meaningless, and had no end? God forbid.

One thing that is true and unchanging is that the love of God is steadfast. Persistent. Unwavering. Firm. It endures our doubt, unbelief, and emotion. That is a really good thing.

Another thing is that Jesus rose from the dead, and if we believe in Him, we will too. Even death has been swallowed up. What could create more gladness than that? I’m not talking about happiness, I’m talking about gladness. See the difference? You can be unhappy and glad at the same time. Biblically you are called to be. Gladness is more important than happiness. It lasts. Gladness in affliction, especially death, does not mean forgetting the situation or acting as if it’s not that bad and instead focusing on brighter things and “moving on”. It is bad. It is horrible! How are you going to “move on” from it? Where are you going to go? Death is the most tragic and unnatural reality in the universe. This shouldn’t be forgotten. It is the bad news that makes the good news intelligible. I have found that those who have the most difficulty with it are usually those who try to forget it or expect time to heal the pain of it. Healing does come with time, but ultimately it is not the time that heals but something else. Someone else. Time cannot remove the sting of death. What can? Who can?

"I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 15:50-57

FAVOR OF THE LORD

Gladness even in shocking loss, such as with Gene, can come from God himself in unexplainable ways. We don’t have to try to muster it up on our own strength. He shows us His favor. He is always showing us His favor. When the sun comes up, when the rain falls, when we order food at a restaurant, God is doing something for us. When we drive home from a funeral, we are still breathing, our muscles are still functioning to put pressure on the accelerator, and shift to the brake. What is our posture at this point? Is it thankfulness? 

Living to die vs. living to live is in large part a mindset, though it affects every part of us and not just our minds. Take for example two different ways to react driving through difficult circumstances, whether traffic or dangerous weather. Living to live consists of our entire focus being on our situation, perhaps the frustration of it, or the fear, and more concern with getting to our destination than with other people or with God, who controls all of it. Living to live is trying to find a way around the traffic because in that way at least we feel like we are in control (I do this all the time to my shame), but finding more traffic on the alternative route. Burnout, fear, panic. Living to die is practicing patience, contentment, gratitude, and generosity in the situation, even in danger, trusting God who is in control, and who, even if you die in that moment, will bring you back from the dead if you believe in Him. This doesn’t mean carelessness or inactivity in driving or otherwise. Ultimately, it is the way to success. Living to die is gratefulness and generosity, something like the following words from Wilson:

“When the snow flies in the headlights like stars at warp speed, when we stand next to danger we cannot control and feel its hot breath on our necks, when steam comes off of its sides and we can do nothing but hang on to the wild mustang, we are no more or less in God’s hands than we have ever been.

“How many cars have you ever passed on the road? How many headlights have snapped by you going the opposite direction? Millions. How many potential fatalities exist on every drive that you have ever taken? Hundreds (even on the short ones). We paint a line (sometimes) and agree to stay on opposite sides as we hurtle along in tons of metal flung by explosions. We fly through the sky strapped to turbines screaming with power and expect to coast down safely on the air.

“We live on a ball of molten rock hurtling through outer space, invisibly leashed to a massive orb of flame. It is steered by Whom?

“How many super-volcanoes have wiped us all out? None. How many earthquakes have killed us all? I’ll still here. You? How many could have?

“As the earth screams through space, balanced exactly on the edge of everyone burning alive and everyone freezing solid, as we shriek through deadly obstacle courses of meteor showers and find them picturesque, as the nearest fiery star vomits eruptions hundreds of times bigger than our wee planet (giving chipper local weathermen northern lights to chatter about), as a giant reflective rock glides around us slopping the seas (and never falls down), and as we ride in our machines, darting past fools and drunks and texting teenagers, how many times do we thank God? We are always in His hands, but we often feel like we are in our own. We can’t thank Him for every breath and every heartbeat, but we can thank Him every day for not splatting us with the moon or letting us drop into the sun.”

“When a drunk crushes some family, some mother, some friend; when a story ends, then we wake up. Then we turn to God with confused expressions, wanting to know why He was sleeping in the boat.

“He brought us here from nothing; is He ever allowed to take us to an exit? His own Son died young; do you think He doesn’t understand? Moses didn’t see the Promised Land. Samson died blind in the rubble. Stephen beneath stones. Paul without a head. Peter upside down. In a bed or on the battlefield or on asphalt in shattered glass beneath a flashing light, we are God’s stories to end. How many drunks has He spared you from? Thank Him before you ask to be spared from another. How many breathes have you drawn? How many winter winds have tightened your skin? How many Christmases have you seen? How many times has the sky swirled glory above your head like a benediction?

“See it. Hear Him. Thank Him. Ask for more. Search for moments in your story for which you can be grateful.”

That, is living to die. That, is death by living. And that, in light of the reality of resurrection, and our sharing in it if we trust in Christ, seems like the best, most helpful, and wonderfully exciting approach! May our life cause our death, so that then, we can come to life again.

--- "It is our living that takes us towards the end." --- 


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Number Your Days




This represents thoughts and highlights from the book Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson, personalized, and alongside meditation in Psalm 90. I am greatly indebted to Wilson for his words, and to my Lord always for His word. I pray that it would be encouragement to and motivation for you. This is part 2 of 3.

--- "Cause of death? Life. May it be the truth." --- 

A THOUSAND YEARS

You may have heard the verses in Scripture that attempt to explain the unexplainable in reference to how God is not bound by time. The Apostle Peter says, “Do not overlook this one fact brothers, with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” This Psalm says, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”

Often, we think of this concept in how short life is. And we should, because it is. N.D. Wilson, author of Death by Living, which I will be quoting at length in this series, helps us realize the fragile shortness of this life:

“The world never slows down so that we can better grasp the story, so that we can form study groups and drill each other on the recent past until we have total retention. We have exactly one second to carve a memory of that second, to sort and file and prioritize in some attempt at preservation. But then the next second has arrived, the next breeze to distract us, the next plane slicing through the sky, the next funny skip from the next funny toddler, the next squirrel fracas, and the next falling leaf. Our imaginations are busy enough capturing now that it is easy to lose the just then.”

And elsewhere Wilson continues:

“No matter how many pictures we take, no matter how many scrapbooks we make, no matter how many moments we invade with a rolling camera, we will die. We will vanish. We cannot grab and take hold. We cannot smuggle things out with us through death. Go to an estate sale (if you dare). Look for photos. Stare at boxes full of vapor untreasured. Leave quickly. But this shouldn’t inspire melancholy; it should only tinge the sweet with the bitter. Don’t resent the moments simply because they cannot be frozen. Taste them. Savor them. Give thanks for that daily bread. Manna doesn’t keep overnight. More will come in the morning.”

Does that view of life change the way you live?

But it goes both ways. To God, our life is immeasurably long, and therefore immeasurably valuable. Stephen Carnock says the following:

"If a thousand years be as a day to the life of God, then as a year is to the life of man, so are three hundred and sixty-five thousand years to the life of God; and as seventy years are to the life of man, so are twenty-five million five hundred and fifty thousand years to the life of God."

Does that view of life change the way you live?

THE YEARS OF OUR LIFE ARE TOIL AND TROUBLE

Many of us are in denial about the fact that the years of our life are full of toil and trouble. But we might as well admit it and get on with it. I think we would enjoy everything more if we did. We may live vacation to vacation, or weekend to weekend, and never really reflect on the hard times and admit that they characterize more of our life in total. To reflect on them and admit this does not present a hopeless situation, as counter-intuitive as that seems. It actually presents a remarkably hopeful situation. It is the difference between leaving a funeral forcing your mind to think about something else, because the reality is too hard, and leaving a funeral thinking more about death – even your own death – than you did when you came, and rejoicing in that and in the context of a miracle that there is historical proof is true. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, which means that his promise that we will too, if we believe in him, can be trusted. It will be fulfilled.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” – 1 Corinthians 15:12-26

But in the meantime, we have toil and trouble. People we love die, and we will one day die. N.D. Wilson drives home this point with such a helpful perspective:

“I will labor to live with the joyful fury of a child, but I will be exhausted. My body will decay and break. That part has already begun. I will grow weak, but with the memory of strength, reaching for strength that should be there and is now gone.

“In the end, I will face the greatest enemy that any man has ever faced. And I will lose.

“Our challenges always build. A ninety-five-year-old man sits in his chair with a wandering mind because a century cannot pass without many blows. That much life is heavy for the strongest shoulders. A young man might feel bold; he might feel courageous, gambling with life and death. And he might be courageous. But he trusts his strength; he feels as if he could fight, as if he could run, as if he has a chance. He may even choose his danger.

“It takes a different kind of courage to face death when you cannot run, when you cannot fight, when you are pinned beneath heavy decades, beneath the weight of life – when your faith really must be in another.”

Is your faith in another?

 NUMBER OUR DAYS

The Bible, and this specific passage (Psalm 90), tells us how we are to handle this toil and trouble. It says we should number our days. What on earth does that mean? Let’s see, 365 days in a year, I’ve lived 33 years, that’s 12,045 days, since my birthday in January. I don’t like math, and can never remember which months only have 30 days, so I won’t complete the formula. But you get the idea. Is that numbering my days? The number of my days is twelve thousand and something. There, I have numbered them, and if you insist, I will keep track on my iPhone from now on.

That is silly. Numbering our days means a lot more than counting them. Maybe it would be most helpful to clarify some things that numbering our days does not mean.

First, it does not mean get to retirement as soon and successfully as you can. Wilson says:

"There is a school of American thought that suggests we are supposed to live furiously and foolishly when young, slave away pointlessly when adults, and then coast into low-impact activity as soon as financially possible. Isn't that just a kiss on the lips (from a dog). The truth is that a life well lived is always lived on a rising scale of difficulty."

Second, it does not mean live for yourself in selfishness. Wilson says:

“They had reached their deaths by living. So will we. How much of the vineyard can we burn first? How fast can we run? How deeply can we laugh? Can we ever give more than we receive? How much gratitude can we show? How many of the least of these can we touch along the way? How many seeds will we get into the ground before we ourselves are planted?”

“Shall we die for ourselves or live for others? For most of us, the question is rarely posed in our final mortal moment (although there is glory when it is). Death is the finish line of this preliminary race. Shall we cross the finish line for ourselves or for others? The choice isn’t waiting for us down the track. The choice is now. Death is now. The choice is here.

“Lay your life down. Your heartbeats cannot be hoarded. Your reservoir of breath is draining away. You have hands, blister them while you can. You have bones, make them strain – they can carry nothing to the grave. You have lungs, let them spill with laughter. With an average life expectancy of 78.2 years in the US (subtracting eight hours a day for sleep), I have around 250,000 conscious hours remaining to me in which I could be smiling or scowling, rejoicing in my life, in this race, in this story, or moaning and complaining about my troubles. I can be giving my fingers, my back, my mind, my words, my breaths to my wife and children and my neighbors, or I can grasp after the vapor and the vanity for myself, dragging my feet, afraid to die and therefore afraid to live. And, like Adam, I will still die in the end. Living is the same thing as dying. Living well is the same thing as dying for others."

So what does it mean to number our days? More thoughts from Wilson:

“If life is a story, how shall we then live? It isn’t complicated (just hard). Take up your life and follow Him. Face trouble. Pursue it. Climb it. Smile at its roar like a tree planted by cool water even when your branches groan, when your golden leaves are stripped and the frost bites deep, even when your grip on this earth is torn loose and you fall among mourning saplings.”

“Grabbing will always fail. Hoarding always fails. Living to live always reaches inevitable and pointless Darwinian burnout – bigger fears, deeper mortal panic. Live to die. If you do, inevitable success awaits you. If you were suddenly given more than you could count, and you couldn’t keep any of it for yourself, what would you do? That is, after all, our current situation. Grabbing will always fail. Giving will always succeed. Bestow. Our children, our friends, and our neighbors will all be better off if we work to accumulate for their sakes. If God has given you a widow’s mite, let it go. Set it on the altar. If God has given you a greater banquet than you could possibly eat, let it go. Set it on the altar. Collect a ragtag crew and seat them. Don’t leave food uneaten, strength unspent, wine undrunk.”

Did you hear that? Living to live always reaches inevitable burnout, bigger fears, and deeper mortal panic. Living to die leads to inevitable success. I wish we heard this more often at funerals. What does it mean? It doesn’t make sense if you are afraid of dying. But why would you be afraid of dying if you knew you were going to rise? There are so many implications of this way of thinking. Ultimately, none of them are relevant if you aren’t saved. And I so badly want them to be relevant for you. What does it mean to be saved? What must you do?

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” – Romans 10:9

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ – Acts 16:25-31

Believe! Confess that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead! Because He is and He did.

So what then are the implications of “living to die”, or this way of “numbering our days”? According to the Psalmist (Moses) in Psalm 90, one implication that he at least anticipates is gladness even in affliction. Another is the favor of the Lord. There are others.

“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” – Psalm 90:15-17

To be continued...

--- "It is our living that takes us towards the end." ---

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Matter of Death and Life




This represents thoughts and highlights from the book Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson, personalized, and alongside meditation in Psalm 90. I am greatly indebted to Wilson for his words, and to my Lord always for His word. I pray that it would be encouragement to and motivation for you. This is part 1 of 3.

--- "Cause of death? Life. May it be the truth." --- 

Spring, and specifically the month of March, has been very significant for me in my adult years. In a positive sense, it is the month of my wedding to Katie, and it will forever be remembered and celebrated for that. I will never forget the early blooming of Spring and 70 degree weather in 2012 for our wedding day, and the late snowstorm a year later in 2013 on the same day of the year. March is mysterious, but in this sense wonderful. It includes the best day of my life so far! It also includes our honeymoon to Antigua, and this year our 2nd anniversary trip to London and Paris!

In a negative sense, or perhaps I should say, in a humbling sense, it is also a season in which I have been to a lot of funerals, and experienced a lot of death. In most cases, unexpected or early death. Not a coincidence, I don’t think, that it is March or April where we remember and celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through faith in whom we can experience death to sin and receive new resurrected life as well. The Apostle Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Amazing. Ultimate life to our dead mortal bodies someday, and spiritual new life to our existing living physical bodies right now. If…the Spirit of God dwells in us.

Does this Spirit dwell in you? Are you sure?

Elsewhere, Jesus Himself says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?"

The words of Jesus here are penetrating: do you believe this?! Do you? 

On March 12, 1999, a high school classmate and friend, John Stewart, collapsed and died during a Regional final high school basketball game. He was 18 (so was I). I found out in the parking lot after the game. We thought he had just fainted.

On March 2, 2001, my Grandpa Elliott passed away after a difficult stretch with dementia. I was in college, and remember sitting in the 2nd floor room of my fraternity house looking out the window as I talked with my dad various times towards the end. But I don’t remember too much about the circumstances specifically around the exact time of his death. I remember making the decision not to come home from school during his biggest struggles, which though difficult, at the time I think was the right one. I remember many things from childhood about him. I remember standing in line with my brothers and cousins waiting for my share of the regular “giveaway”. My grandpa collected and traded many things in the antique variety. I am blessed (or I’ll let my wife choose the word) with his sense of nostalgia. And, of course, I certainly will always remember the legacy of the man who was my grandpa. My livelihood and my family will be forever indebted to him for the company he founded and the example he left. I love hearing stories about him in his prime, of which there are many, especially around Foamcraft.

On March 26, 2005, a fraternity brother and brother in Christ, Brett Hershey, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was 23 (I was 24). I was alone in my parents’ house when a family friend called for my dad and told me the news.

On March 27, 2008, the father of a girl I was dating at the time lost a long and courageous battle with lung cancer. They lived in St. Louis and she called me as I was driving to work.

On March 13, 2014 – this year - a longtime co-worker at Foamcraft, Inc., Gene DeRose, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. My dad told me through tears, while he was on the phone with my brother, as we were walking through our plant in Elkhart, Indiana. We drove home that afternoon to be with the corporate staff at Indianapolis.

Gene was a quiet, friendly man. He did his job well, kept mostly to himself, but was amazingly pleasant to be around. His laugh was contagious and it included a shoulder jiggle. I wish I had it on video to remember. He was extremely well-traveled. Born in Sri Lanka, where he still has family, he came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago and attended Indiana University, my alma mater. He has a brother who lives in Australia, and their whole family made trips there, and elsewhere, often. I wish I had inquired more about his trips, and in general spent more time with him. He was only two offices down the hall from mine, and I passed it multiple times per day. We always could chat about Indiana basketball, in many cases in the last several years, about what was going to happen with it, but also about some good times. Recently I remember him telling me about his white-water rafting adventure in New Zealand, where he was extremely reluctant to go and amazed that he survived. I asked whether he was glad he did it, because now he had that experience and conquered the fear, and he said, “No!”, and preceded to laugh and jiggle, and I then did the same (minus the jiggle). I still can’t believe he’s gone. It was after Gene's death that I finally decided to pick-up and read Death by Living, which had been on my radar since the previous September. Though I never had a spiritual conversation with Gene, regrettably, his approach to life resonated a lot with the content of this book, and will always be an encouragement to me.

These dates do not include other times in April and May, which I now still consider “Resurrection Season”. Of course, it should not only be a season, but these experiences remind me of the miracle especially in Spring, where by the grace of God we see the very same reality in the grass and flowers and trees.

At the end of May 2005, the younger brother of my fraternity brother, friend, brother in Christ, and roommate at the time, was killed in an alcohol-related car accident. He was a passenger. It was the day of the Indianapolis 500, and I got the call as I was dozing off after a long day at the track. I spent the remainder of the evening into the morning with the family, present without the foggiest idea what to say.

On April 12, 2008, my Grandma Elliott passed away with my dad by her side. He was driving home from dinner with his sister and providentially decided to stop by the hospital to see her. I was in the car with my mom and aunt and uncle, in Florida celebrating my Grandpa Gibson’s birthday, when my mom got the call. I’ll never forget calling both my brothers that night to give them the news.

Reflecting on these experiences, especially the most recent (Gene), I am humbled by God’s grace to me. These experiences were not the same as others I know are in front of me. That is to say, my relation to these dear people was not closer than the immediate family and closest friends. My grieving was significant, yes. But someday I know my relation to the deceased will be closer yet. Still, God has showed me HHHHis grace profoundly in my young, naïve, and at first unbiblical attempts to find meaning, comfort, and hope in these times. The clearest way He has done this is by leading me directly to specific passages in Scripture. After Brett Hershey died it was Philippians 1:18-26. That one was immediate. It is for your sake that I remain!

Since Gene died, over these several weeks, it has been Psalm 90. I wanted to share it in its entirety, because it is more valuable than anything I could say:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades away and withers.

For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.

For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!

What is incredible to me is not only the truth, comfort, and hope in these types of passages, but also the connection to the reality of resurrection, more clearly seen because of the time of year, and the circumstances surrounding when I have focused on them, namely death. Everything connects to the resurrection. The resurrection changes everything. The resurrection is the only source of comfort and hope that we can have. It is the source of life we have now. If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, we (those who believe He did) are most to be pitied, and, we will not ourselves rise. If the bones of the man Jesus Christ returned to dust, what of our bodies after death? The resurrection is everything. Did you know that? Do you believe that? Jesus says that He is the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believes in Him even though he dies will live. What does that mean? How can that be?

To be continued....

--- "It is our living that takes us to the end." --- 

Friday, April 11, 2014

There and Back Again - Part 3: Churches



CHURCHES

As I look back at my pictures, when it comes to churches, I am a little disappointed. From the outside, or on the inside, the pictures don't do them justice; not to the architecture, the splendor, the age, the size, the pillars, the stain glass, the carvings, not to anything. I have only been to England, Scotland, and now France in Europe, but I'm convinced that old churches and cathedrals are one of the most unique and powerful things to see. Even for people who have never actually worshiped in a church context authentically, don't know Jesus, or would not consider going inside a church except as a tourist. Just like pictures don't do justice to the buildings themselves, the buildings don't do justice to God's glory and splendor, yet I believe that was their intention. And I think even unchurched people see and understand that, and appreciate it.




Is God pleased at the grandeur of these structures? Have locals been inoculated by the size and the number of them in cities like Paris? Does authentic worship happen in these places? Is the biblical gospel preached from these pulpits? All questions that will continue to bounce around in my mind.

The three pictures directly above are all of the Notre Dame, which is impressive. We walked around the outside of this monstrous church (the gargoyles justify my use of "monstrous" in reference to a church) on our first morning, and then walked inside on our second morning when it was less crowded. Our hotel location was ideal and allowed for this. It occurs to me now, after seeing this famous Gothic cathedral, that it is strange that old and beautiful churches in Europe have become major tourist attractions. Is that not ironic? What are the points of interest? Well, with the Notre Dame, you've got the architecture, which is amazing. I do not appreciate architecture as I should, but it is clear that the intricacies and scope of this structure is unmatched. Then you've got the history: originally completed in 1345; Henry VI crowned there in 1431; Mary Queen of Scots married 1558; coronation of Napoleon in 1804; plundered during the French Revolution; restored in the 19th century; etc. But, I wonder, what about gospel history? How many people were saved by the blood of Jesus in this building?



What did the men who stood behind these pulpits say? Were they clear that Jesus Christ himself said that he is the only way to the Father? Did they describe the desperation portrayed in the man in the painting in the picture above? How did the proclamation of the gospel coincide with these historic events? Did Napoleon hear the gospel? Did he believe?


I am looking at church buildings differently after this trip, especially older ones, in cities and in small towns. I appreciate them more. I would like to contribute to others seeing then differently, more positively, also. Nowadays, I think, when someone sees a church building, or even several church buildings within a close proximity, they see the abuses of the church; the hypocrisy, the legalism, the rituals. Or, they see the building as an indicator of institutionalism, dry or dead orthodoxy, or exclusion, all of which were never meant to be what the community of God was bound to.

When I see a church building, especially an old church in the heart of a city, or a smaller church in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, I see what I think was always meant to be seen, namely, a beacon of light for the surrounding community; a place where the gospel is spoken and lived and where hope is offered to those who need it most (which is all of us); a safe place where lives are shared without judgment, but also an uncomfortable place where vulnerability is necessary for change, which is necessary for joy. Even in a church building that consists of a congregation that is not growing, perhaps a pastor or ministry that does not preach the gospel or believe completely in the Bible, I see these things.

When I see a church, when I see a steeple, peering out between buildings as is the case so often in Paris (see picture above), I see hope. I see light in a dark world. I can’t change every church that is dying, unbiblical, or going astray from what God intends for them. I know that many of the churches I see in Europe and small town America fall into one of these categories. But what I can do, maybe, is celebrate the church in such a way that the very presence of a building (but not only a building of course!) can be seen as hope and light in a community and a world that needs exactly that. What if I could tell a person who is hurting that the existence of that old church down the street (the very existence!), even though the people in that church may not understand the Bible or the gospel very well, is evidence that God is gracious, and that He cares about our pain, He shared in it, and He offers hope because He came down to us and lived the life we should have lived, died the death we deserved the die, and rose from the dead conquering the ultimate root of our pain, forever! And He commissioned his people to bring that hope to the world, community by community, local church by local church, steeple by steeple. The presence of a church building is proof of the gospel. Do you see churches that way?



Backing up a little in the timeline of our trip, the above pictures are of the famous Westminster Abbey. The amount of history in this place is staggering. I mean literally you should not walk straight. The physical remains of Edward Longshanks, Henry VII, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, not to mention poets and authors from Charles Dickens to Charles Darwin. William the Conqueror was crowned here in 1066. Spiritually, this place was a central location in the transition from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism during the Reformation, creating a split between the Church of England and the authority of Rome. Queen Elizabeth II coronation. Princess Diana funeral. The "Royal Wedding" of 2011. Truly, this place is amazing. "The tombs and monuments speak both of human dignity and achievement and of the Christian confidence in life after death." And, it is a living church. Is this same confidence clear in regular worship there? Is it proclaimed where this confidence comes from? 


Moving to Guildford and surrounding areas, the above picture is of St. James Church in Shere, England. Yes, that graveyard is the graveyard that Cameron Diaz awoke in her cab and said, "This can't be it", in the movie The Holiday. I hesitate using that reference to relate, but I imagine it worked for many. Know that the history in this church is much more relevant than the setting of a movie.


I'm not sure if you can see this picture very clearly, but it is posted in the back of the church and it has an engraving of the name of every Rector at the church since 1270. The church is said to go back earlier than that. A running list. Did you catch that? 1270. One congregation, 744 years, 42 pastors. That is amazing. Compare it to the church you go to, or a church you have gone to. Imagine, the impact that God has had through this one local body of believers. Same town, dozens of generations, all of which born into sin and desperate for the Savior.

Now, some of the history of this church is as concerning as it is fascinating. Have you ever heard of the concept of an anchorite in medieval times? I will let you read these letters, and perhaps you can make as much sense of it as me:



You could also just go to the internet (the one with email) and, using the Google machine, search "anchoress of Shere". But this way you know I was there. Also of note in this church is a chest from the 13th century that is thought to have been for storage of alms to aide poor Crusaders. This chest was just sitting in the front of the church. I have seen less valuable and more guarded furniture at an antique store. This thing was just in the corner with a discarded copy of last week's bulletin on top of it. Welcome to England. I hope I am getting you into history if you're not already. Most chests you see in a church, or an antique store, or maybe your house, if you're lucky are from your grandmother's house and maybe were made in the 1800s, and stored clothing garments, jewelry, or old parchments or something. And if it has family history it is probably in the center of a room, or well protected in a safe place. This chest at this church was from 800 years ago, was used for aid for one of the most significant, yet shameful, periods in the history of Christianity, and it was just in the back of the church without even a marking.


I want to worship at this church someday. It could be interesting, but still, I want to. What blows my mind is that this church is considered old and drenched in history beyond comprehension to us as Americans. We just don't have anything like it. But to God? A day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is but a day.



We spent our second day in Paris walking around St. Germain and the Latin Quarter. My wife asked me the other night which day in Paris was my favorite. I hesitated to say our second day only because it was raining. Now, dry and warm inside my house in Fishers writing this, with absolutely no memory of the rain, I say Tuesday without any hesitation. Much of the reason for that I have covered about in the Culture and Cuisine sections; it was on this day we strolled around without much of an agenda, and fell into markets, cafes, bookstores, chocolate shops, boutiques, a classic French bistro on the Rue de Mouffetard for lunch, and the oldest restaurant in Paris for dinner. It really was perfect. But, on top of that, walking around these classic Parisian neighborhoods, we would approach (and walk by if we weren't careful) amazing old churches. We'd turn a corner, and boom, there was St. Sulpice (second picture above). I was amazed by this church and the square in front of it. What of the history of this church? How has God moved here?

And then there was St. Germain des Pres, the oldest church in Paris (first picture above). It was outside here we stopped at a famous café and Katie blessed that aspiring artist. We went inside this church, and I wish I could capture for you the beautiful opera singing practice that accompanied us as we walked around the back of the altar. But I can't. You'll have to go and hope they are practicing again when you go inside.


Finally, there was the Sacre-Coeur. The best for last. For us, the most memorable part of the experience was the approach. I wonder how many Parisians, or tourists, take the same approach. We probably wouldn't recommend our route. Still, perhaps it was the approach meant to be taken to see the church as it is. Similar to our road to salvation, the road to this amazing church at the Northern tip of Paris, and atop of the city, is not meant to be traveled without some toil, even danger. To put it in perspective, check out this map:


Find the Gare Du Nord (right side of the map). Now find the Sacre-Coeur (top left). It is clear there are roads between them, yes? How hard could it be? Well, our journey began at the Gare Du Nord late afternoon our last night (on a mission that was sadly unsuccessful). Knowing how close it appeared to be, I said for sure we were going to see this church. I had read a little about it (not enough it would turn out), and we had seen it at night atop the Arc de Triomphe two nights before and were blown away by how it seemed to tower over the city.

I am going to be honest with you: sometimes I don't process the obvious. In this case, the fact that it "towered over the city" did not register, and so it did not occur to me that it would not be at the same altitude as where we were coming from, namely, the streets of Paris. Also, these "streets of Paris" were a tad different than those of our friendly Latin Quarter. That is to say, not to be judgmental, but the people around these parts seemed up to no good. We decided in route we would find a dinner spot close to "home" on this our last night (and we did, on the same street as our hotel, and it was fabulous #FrenchOnionSoup). But I digress.

I held my wife tight, and we walked via the map in the general direction of the Sacre-Coeur. Gradually, it became apparent that we were climbing. Shortness of breath, aching legs, etc. Then, the streets in real life did not seem to match the streets on the map. But I was trusting my nose (which normally is terrible at direction, not to mention regular smelling). Then, the area appeared residential. Then, well, here is a picture looking down after climbing what was definitely a residential street. At the time of taking this picture, we had no idea whether any road connected further up the hill, or if it did, whether it would take us to the church (which we had at least seen through the buildings once, before losing it again).


Long story short, we found that it wasn't a dead end. We winded around a little more, passed a few locals taking out their trash, and then this:


Yes, still some stairs to climb, and, actually this was the back of the church, which at first appeared closed off and empty, but...we had made it. We walked around to the front of the church and saw the amazing building, the people, and the city. It was breathtaking.




Part of me wants to know the history of this church and in this church before telling our story of visiting this church. I know that Pope John Paul II had visited. But another part of me predicts that I will be a little disappointed. So, instead, in conclusion to this recap on a fabulous trip, I want to reflect briefly on our journey to this church, and the beauty upon our arrival, as a synopsis of the reward and purpose of travel. I could let my imagination run wild here and stretch out a comparison beyond what would make sense. Maybe I should later. But for now, I think our approach to this church represented well what I believe to be a healthy approach to travel.

It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t entirely planned, and it wasn’t completely safe, but it was worth it. When I say it was “worth it”, what do I mean? Worth the view? Worth the pictures? Worth the memory, or the experience? Yes to all of these things. But I mean also something less about us I think. 

We couldn't stay at this breathtaking place forever, just like we couldn't stay in Paris, or Guildford, or London forever. It would have even been nice to stay just a bit longer. It will be great to go again, God willing. But the point was not to stay. The point was to go, and to come back, and for something to happen in the process. What happened?

We had fun, yes. We enjoyed temporary pleasures, like food and drink. We saw amazing sights with our eyes that are now in our memories. We learned a lot, about history, culture, geography, language, and people. We celebrated an anniversary and grew closer together in our marriage. Anything else? Are we closer to Jesus? What would that look like?

As I reflect on that view beyond the Sacre-Coeur, looking over all of Paris, and the journey to get there, I am convinced that the answer to that last question is absolutely yes. We were, and we are now still, closer to Jesus. The same thing applies to the entire trip. But what does that mean?

God is not the God of the Jews only, Paul says. God is not the God of the Christians only, I would add. He is the one living God of the universe. Jesus Christ is the only name under heaven by which anyone can be saved, but God is God over and among those who have not yet believed also. God is the God over the aspiring artist. God is God over that bookstore owner. God is God over the Scottish men we talked to briefly at The Red Lion pub in England, who were not the first or the last to warn us of pickpockets in Paris (none of whom we encountered). Etc.

The secular Englishman and Parisian, perhaps no longer amazed by or appreciative of the wonders of their culture and history, desensitized to the taste and uniqueness of their food, espresso, tea, or wine, and inoculated to the reality of God or the concept of church community because of the ubiquity of breathtaking buildings and architecture all around them - God is God of them also. And in His sovereignty, He allowed us to rub shoulders with some of them. I know more the heart of my God by knowing more of the diversity of the people He is God over, some of whom by His grace are His children, whether they know it yet or not. I hope that some people in the places we visited can say, now or in the future, that they know God a little more also because of us and our brief presence among them.

We did not share the gospel with our words, and we should have. But if God is the God over the Englishman in the pub, or the Parisian in the café, or even the Asian tourist in the Notre Dame or the Louvre, all of whom communicate very differently than us, is he not also the God over our neighbor? Or our co-worker? Or our high-school friend? There are still barriers with communicating the gospel with these people in our lives, but language (or even accent) is not one of them. Jesus draws us to Himself by showing us that His grace in the gospel comes to us on its way to someone else, and areas of common ground to improve communication with people are many. Sometimes it takes a trip across the world to be reminded of that.
  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

There and Back Again - Part 2: Cuisine



CUISINE

This will mostly be a foodie report. We ate well in England and France. I will take this opportunity to direct you to the blog of my wife, who has an amazing heart and an amazing gift for celebrating food and nutrition to the glory of the God; to be satisfied in food by being more satisfied in God. What I will do here is share some pictures and mention some highlights. Like I said, we ate well.


This is called a Full English Breakfast. Eggs, sausage, ham, tomato, mushroom, and black pudding. Yes, black pudding. No, not like dark chocolate pudding. Black like blood sausage pudding, presumably with a high proportion of oatmeal. Um, its delicious.


Can I say, anyone that is underwhelmed with English food is crazy. While in Guildford, our friends took us to an authentic English Pub, and we did what you should absolutely do: order Fish & Chips and some type of Meat Pie (I got Steak and Ale - first picture above). Washed it down with some T.E.A. - no, not tea like afternoon tea, tea like Traditional English Ale. It was a perfect dining experience.


At this establishment: tikka misala. It so happens that the only place with better Indian food than India is London. We (Katie especially) have recently fallen in love with Indian food (she prefers Chicken Korma, and she is probably right), so our friends made a reservation for us at a classic Indian Restaurant in Covent Garden called Punjab. Fabulous.


One thing about cuisine is that it is not entirely about the food. You could say it is not primarily about the food, or that it is barely about the food. It is just as much about the experience. And the experience is always enhanced with friends. Above is a picture with our friends, Jake and Katlyn, at an Italian restaurant in Guildford, where they live. They were such gracious hosts. They had made reservations at an Italian restaurant and a Thai one, for us to choose. We had eaten Indian the night before, had already had all the staple English dishes, and it occurred to me: we love Italian (who doesn't), and aren't we closer to Italy than we've ever been (well, Katie has been to Italy, but still)? So we had Italian. It was wonderful.


On to Paris. My family goes to Ft. Lauderdale every year for vacation, and the first year my wife went with me we had a date night at a French restaurant called Le Cafe de Paris. Great food, terrible service - perfect experience. We loved it. It was there that my wife (and myself years earlier) was introduced to escargot, aka, snails with lots of olive oil. So, the first restaurant we went to in Paris we ordered escargot. Best ever. #Snails



My brother Matt, blogging and tweeting as @enthusiastofall (France Dining Recap), highly recommended a meal at the oldest restaurant in Paris, Le Procope, and specifically the Coq Au Vin which comes in a copper cauldron. I'm very glad he did. It was awesome. And the restaurant itself was a classic spot. Nooks and cranies everywhere. Did I mention the cauldron?


Call me generic, but I had to get French Onion Soup while in Paris. Because, as you know, Paris is in France, making food served there Fren...oh, you understand. I am not necessarily a fan of it normally, mostly because I avoid dairy where I can. But on our last night there, at a great little authentic French place on our street, I saw it on the menu and I went for it. It was so good I slurped the remainder of the broth from the bowl when I was finished.


Our second night in Paris was also our 2nd wedding anniversary, and the best dinner we had. Praise God for that! We found a place just beyond the Arc de Triomphe off Champs Elysees, called Le Hide. Japanese chef, but authentic French cuisine. Small like less than 10 tables. Amazing atmosphere, and delightful service. The best dish I had the whole trip was my first course at this place: Duck and Lentils. Oh man. The Lamb Shoulder main course was pretty good too, but oh those lentils.

In summary, the food was really good. French food might be my new favorite. All glory to God who gives us food to enjoy, and desires that we do so while experiencing ultimate satisfaction in Him! How cool to experience this in other cultures.