Jesus Enters Our Darkness

Today is Good Friday – a day where the Christian church around the world slows down to reflect upon the death of Jesus so many years ago.  Every year it forces me to remember and reconsider what the gospel is all about.  And every year it stirs up different thoughts, emotions, and questions for me.  

One particular question I find myself asking in this season is - why does life have to be so hard?  When I meet to people in the counseling office, get together with to people at church, spend time with my own family, and listen what is going on in my own heart – I see that suffering is an inescapable reality for every one of us. 

But how do we reconcile God’s goodness with the pervasive difficulty of life?  Theologians, philosophers, and countless others have given numerous answers, but we still find ourselves asking the same old question, year after year. 

As I prepare for our church service tonight, I realize that Good Friday doesn’t give an exhaustive answer, but it certainly gives us something very important to think about.  It reminds us that Jesus enters our darkness and suffers on our behalf. 

In Greek & Roman mythology, the gods were simply bigger versions of us – same desires, same struggles, but with much more power.  But the message of Christianity presents something radically different.  God isn’t simply a powerful being who uses humanity as slaves to satisfy petty cravings.  God loves his people so much that he dies to rescue them.  This was so foreign to the Roman world that they the best word they could find to describe it was ‘foolish.’ 

Good Friday says to us – look at the cross, look at the wounds, look at the crown of thorns – behold your God.  Jesus enters our sufferings and takes on the weight of our sin.  We are known and we are loved, and the cost for our rescue is not cheap.     

This doesn’t answer all of our questions on why life has to be so hard, but it reminds us that our God is no stranger to suffering.  We can be confident that the reason behind our suffering is not indifference or cruelty on God’s part.  We can trust whole heartedly that a love this big is up to something very good in all this. 

Darkness & Light

Sad.  Lost.  Weary.  Hopeless.  What happens when these words begin to describe us?  What happens when there is a gaping disconnect between what we say is true about life and what we really feel on the inside?  

I feel this tension every day.  Since high school, I’ve experienced what the medical field labels ‘depression.’  Inside me lives a darkness that I can never seem to fully escape.  It haunts me, always waiting to pull me in.  It speaks to me, spinning half-truths that confuse and distort how I see reality.  There are times where it eases up, and times where it feels gone for good.  But sure enough, it always seems to find its way back to me. 

But I'm a counselor and a pastor - how can I be in the work of helping people when I myself am in need of such desperate help?  Am I missing something?  Did I take a wrong turn somewhere along the way that got me far off track? 

While I regularly wrestle with those questions, my everyday interactions with hurting people remind me that I'm not alone.  We all face darkness in our lives in some way.  No one is exempt.  No one is free of struggle.  

There is a deadly misconception that Christians (especially pastors & counselors) should have it all together.  No darkness.  No doubts.  No struggle.  Only happiness, clarity, and contentment - all day, every day.  We should always have out stuff together, and problems in life are only a sign that we’ve messed up something along the way.

When I trek through the scriptures, I see a very different story.  The Bible is a very raw book.  It doesn’t present a neat and tidy picture of life.  It’s honest, real, and wonderfully hopeful to people like me who struggle deeply.  Psalm 42 is one passage that speaks deeply to my soul. 

 As the deer longs for streams of water,
 so I long for you, O God.  I thirst for God, the living God.  When can I go and stand before him?  Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration!

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
 I will put my hope in God!
 I will praise him again - my Savior and my God!  Now I am deeply discouraged, but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
 from the land of Mount Mizar.

I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.  But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life.

“O God my rock,” I cry,“Why have you forgotten me?
 Why must I wander around in grief,
 oppressed by my enemies?”  Their taunts break my bones.  They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

Why am I discouraged?
 Why is my heart so sad?
 I will put my hope in God!
    I will praise him again —
 my Savior and my God!

There are longings. 

There are tears.

There is confusion.

There is discouragement.

There is sadness.

There is darkness.

But there is also light.  There is also hope.  There is also trust.  There is also worship.  

Darkness and light, weeping and worship, heartache and hope – somehow, someway, they’re all here together. 

I wish the darkness would go away in my life.  I fight against it.  I pray against it.  But it's still there.  But I’m thankful to say that there is something else there as well - light.  God is breaking through the darkness, and even using the brokenness to bring healing.  The cross of Jesus reminds me that God has gone to extraoridinary lengths to show that he can be trusted and to show that he is always for me – no matter what I feel and no matter how bleak life appears.  The resurrection of Jesus reminds me that light will have the final word over darkness.  One day, the darkness will be gone forever.  This continues to be my only hope.

Why am I discouraged?
  Why is my heart so sad?
  I will put my hope in God!
   I will praise him again —
 my Savior and my God!

 

Growing a Strong Marriage: Knowing One Another

In thinking about what makes for a strong marriage, it’s easy to overlook the most basic feature of marriage – it is a close relationship.    In dating, engagement, and marriage, there is a natural progression that takes place.  Two individuals are moving towards one another – revealing themselves, discovering each other, and growing in love for the person they are coming to know deeply.

collection-34.jpg

In Scripture, the marriage relationship is patterned after the relationship God has with his people.  One common phrase repeated throughout the Old Testament is a simple declaration – “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  Page after page the Bible talks about a God who knows his people deeply and who invites his people into a close relationship with him in which there is mutual knowledge and enjoyment.

But when we look at our own relationships, there seems to be a natural shift towards complacency.  We don’t set out to be bored and stagnant in our marriages, but it creeps in slowly over time.  Life gets busy, routine sets in, and we easily lose sight of the person right before our eyes.  We stop seeing the person we love and begin to act like roommates who know their roles and just keep the ball of life rolling.

Marriage is meant to be so much more - knowing and enjoying, discovering and delighting – ever growing in your understanding and love for your spouse.

Knowing one another well is at the heart of a strong marriage, and in order to further help couples move in this direction, many times I’ll provide some reflection questions for couples to walk through together.  This provides a great opportunity for them to take tangible steps in moving towards one another, as well as shape a future trajectory of increasingly knowing and enjoying one another in every stage of life.

With the questions below, I encourage each person to see how well they can answer each of the questions below, and then use them as conversation starters for deeper discussion.  

-       How would you describe his personality?

-       What are her strengths & weaknesses?

-       What is he interested in?

-       What are her dreams & aspirations?

-       What are his fears?

-       What is important to her in life?

-       What does he want life to look like?

-       What are some of her past hurts?

-       What are some of his present frustrations?

-       How does she respond to stress?

-       What are the prominent emotions in his life?

-       Where would she love to travel?

-       Who does he really want to spend more time with?

-       What is her picture of a romantic date?

-       What does he like to do in his spare time?

-       What challenges is she facing in her journey of faith?

-       How is the gospel shaping his way of life?

-       How is she growing in her understanding of grace?

-       How is he maturing in his love for others? 

-       What is God up to in her life?

There may be some of these you simply can’t answer.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is an opportunity for you to get to know your spouse / fiance better.  There’s a million other questions you could ask as well, but heart remains the same – if you want to cultivate a strong marriage, take active steps to know an enjoy your spouse.  

Growing a Great Marriage: Asking the Question

As I sit down with newly engaged couples, I’m reminded of the excitement that accompanies two people fully joining their lives to one another.  They are eager to start their new life as a couple, and they are committed to journeying together for the long haul, but they often don’t realize how hard the path before them really is.

From one perspective, marriage is simple and easy: love your best friend for as long as you live.  From another perspective, marriage is extremely complicated and incredibly difficult: continually give of yourself for the good of your spouse.

As I reflect back upon 10 years of marriage, I’m reminded that Kaitie and I have come a long way.  We’ve grown in how we love, how we listen, how we serve, how we persevere, and how we simply enjoy one another.  But while we’ve come a long way, I’m also reminded that we still have a long way to go.  We’re still learning to sacrifice, still learning to forgive, still learning to trust, and still learning to love in the ordinary ebb and flow of everyday life.   

Whether you’re newly engaged or well traveled on the path of marriage, we all face the same question: what makes a great marriage?  As strange as it may seem, it’s easy for us to fly past this question without much thought.  The newly engaged couple is so excited about finally being married that its easy to assume everything will naturally fall into place and a great marriage will simply happen.  Couples farther down the road know better, but they run into their own struggles.  The newness of marriage wears off, and they begin just going through the motions.  Dreams of a great marriage fade, and they slowly get used to saying, “that’s just how it is,” or they just give up and move on, thinking the grass is greener somewhere else.

So, what makes a great marriage?  Deep down, what should we want our marriages to look like?  What should we be working towards, talking towards, sacrificing towards, and praying towards? What picture of marriage is beautiful enough to capture our desires and reshape the way we live day in and day out? 

My purpose here is not to throw out a quick and easy answer, but to get us to ask the question and honestly think through how we would answer.  Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some of what Kaitie and I have learned as we struggle and stumble our way forward in our own marriage.  I'll also be touching on some aspects of marriage that I walk through with young couples in premarital counseling sessions - connection, purpose, friendship, communication, service, conflict & intimacy (all of which are relevant no matter how many years we've been married).    

However how far we've come, we still have a long way to go.  And as we journey together towards rich and strong marriages, the direction we travel in depends heavily upon how we answer this simple question - what makes a great marriage?  

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

What Can I Expect in a New Year?

1387568511781.jpg

2013 is gone, and a new year has arrived.  Some of us didn’t want this past year to end. It was full of life changing events we’d like to experience over and over again if we could.  For others, it was year we’d like to quickly forget, full of disappointment, frustration, and heartache.

For most of us, we find ourselves somewhere in between.  There were some really good things that happened, and there were some really hard things that happened.  New friendships were formed, and we said goodbye to others we cared about.  Some days we felt full of meaning, other days we felt lost in the messiness of it all. Some days we laughed, some days we cried, and other days we didn’t know what to feel.  Some days we relaxed over good meals with old friends, other days we stressed out over bleak finances and a struggling bank account. 

Whatever happened, the year is over.  And now, as a new year opens up before us, many of us are asking the question – what can I really expect in 2014?  What can I expect in my marriage?  With my kids?  With my job?  With my health?  What does a new year have in store for us?

One passage in particular gives me reason to hope in this upcoming year:

              The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; 

                       his mercies never come to an end; 

              they are new every morning;  

                        great is your faithfulness.

              “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,

“therefore I will hope in him.”

             (Lam. 3:22-23)

 

At the end of the day, and at the end of the year, I can expect God to be faithful.  I can expect him to be relentlessly committed to my good and to the good of his people.  I can expect to find new evidences of his mercy every morning I wake up.  I can expect him to never give up on me, no matter how many times I mess up.  I can expect to see God’s faithfulness in countless ways, but most clearly in the giving of Jesus – the perfect manifestation of God’s enduring commitment to the people he loves. 

Yes, I will get sick.  Yes, I will make mistakes in my marriage. Yes, those I care about will struggle.  Yes, parenting will be challenging.  Yes, work will be difficult.  Yes, I will be tired.  Yes, there will times it will seem as if God is not good, not present, and not to be trusted.

But underneath all of these experiences,  deep down I know there is a greater story at work.  It is a story of a God who is using all of life (the beautiful and the broken) to accomplish his work of rescue and renewal.

I can expect God to continue that work in 2014, and I’m thankful to be a part of his better story.

 

*Special thanks to my friend & pastor Don Aldin, who preached a great sermon on God’s enduring faithfulness, helping bring these ideas home for me in a new way.