Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Severing the Root

The Sermon on the Mount shines a blinding light on the desires that lurk beneath my deeds. 

Blow by blow, Jesus systematically deconstructs the notion that my deeds can be good enough. And He takes direct aim at my desires, and the heart from which they came.

Jesus spent much of His ministry turning righteousness "outside in." He continually brought things back to the heart. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. What comes out of a person is what defiles him. This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

He condemned the scribes and Pharisees, whose empty deeds were deceptive coverings for dirty cups. And he commended the poor widow, whose deed proceeded from a desire to give everything she had.

As I read slowly through the Sermon on the Mount on this morning’s bus ride, I started to take a much closer inventory my desires—my affections. And honestly, I didn’t like what I saw. 

I was reminded of how C.S. Lewis described self-examination so well in his book The Four Loves:

[It’s] like getting your household furniture out for a move. It did very well in its place, but it looks shabby or tawdry or grotesque in the sunshine.

Dragging dark desires out into the bright sunshine of God's Word is a very unflattering experience. It sobers me greatly to think that I am only as sanctified as those darkest desires. I can abstain from pornography and adultery in deed, but not at all mind the bikini-clad banner ad. Jesus says that makes me an adulterer. I can abstain from murder, but mentally mutilate people who cut me off on the highway. Jesus says that makes me a murderer. I can abstain from overeating, but burn for a bowl of ice cream at bedtime. Jesus says that makes me a glutton. I can go to men’s Bible study, but secretly desire to sleep in. Jesus says that makes me a sluggard.

I may look pretty good on the outside. But I'm an adulterous, murderous, gluttonous sluggard through and through because of what's secretly raging on the inside.

In His book The Mortification of Sin, John Owen describes the battle with indwelling sin as severing the root. In other words, sin is a foe that must be faced at the level of my desires. Far deeper than dwelling on my evil deeds, I must cultivate a genuine distaste for the evil desires that first gave birth to them. I must earnestly ask for help hating the things that hinder me from savoring Christ above all things—things that are actually far less satisfying than He is. And when He does His work in me, He gets the glory.

This takes a supernatural work of His Spirit in me, and an utter dependence on my part for His help. It takes a Savior who fulfilled all righteousness because I can’t do it in my own strength. 

The unachievable standard of the law Christ lays out in the Sermon on the Mount is like a blinking neon sign pointing me directly to Him. Though it deeply convicts me, it also lifts me to praise God for sending a perfect Savior—apart from whom I would have no prayer of ever severing sin’s root. To which I say with Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus our Lord!"

May God give us all Gospel strength in the root-severing work of sanctification.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Letter to Joy: Weathering With You

This is the third installment of a Monday Marriage Love Letters series Joy and I have been writing along with fellow married bloggers Seth and Amber Haines. You can jump over and read Joy's post here. And please let us know if you'd like to be part of our little marriage letter link-up!

Dear Joy,

Thirteen years ago, I stammered out my wedding vows to you on that unseasonably warm September day. I was an absolute mess. I could only whisper the words between sobs. My lower lip twitched like a dog’s hind leg when you rub that perfect spot on its belly. I was so happy, and I remember thinking, “What’s happening to me?” (I’m so glad our ceremony didn’t end up on film, or any recording device, for that reason.)

You probably didn’t know before that day that I was given to crying in public when I’m saying something for which words are sorely insufficient. I mean really, how can anybody say, “until death” without being a complete emotional wreck? It takes a stronger man than I.

But fortunately for me, you didn’t seem phased by my complete lack of composure from being so overwhelmed by the moment. You loved me right through it.

And that would definitely not be the last time I would cry in public. Ten years later, we were holding hands again on a church platform on a chilly October night, saying goodbye to Elli with 500 onlookers weeping with us.

But fortunately for me, once again, you didn’t seem phased by my complete lack of composure from being so overwhelmed by the moment. And once again, you loved me right through it.

We have weathered so many “hair-down” moments in our marriage, when composure and calm went completely out the window. Emotions were raw. Tears flowed. As the “head of the household”, there have been moments when I definitely didn’t keep it all together.

Yet fortunately for me, you seem to be into men who aren’t afraid to cry. Each of those moments has seemed to to bring us closer together. With each storm, we’ve just huddled closer under the umbrella. Then when the umbrella got taken away, we just sat in the rain together while it pelted our foreheads in the night.

I guess that’s what I was thinking about when I sobbed out those vows. I was thinking about the storms, and knew that the person standing in front of me would be huddling under there with me, with her hand squeezing mine for dear life, unphased by my lack of composure.

I love you,


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

If I Should Lose My Mind

My paternal grandfather, my dad and me after a long day's work. (1992)
Both of my grandfathers died of the same disease. And it wasn’t cancer.

They had good cholesterol and strong, healthy hearts. They were not diabetic, obese or hypertensive. These were rugged, hard-working blue-collar man’s men, with thick callouses on their hands and elbows. They drove tractors, dump trucks and buses their entire adult lives—yet they did not die in “accidental deaths” (although it’s somewhat of a miracle that neither of them did).

No, none of these things took them. Instead, these words marked the beginning of their end: “You have dementia.”

Their diagnoses came about 6 years apart, during my teenage years. My maternal grandpa’s decline began in 1986. He died in 1992 at age 79. Then 6 years passed, and my paternal grandpa (pictured above with my dad and me) began his plunge in 1998. He died in 2003 at age 76.

In these painful years between diagnosis and death, dementia all but liquefied both of their brains before our very eyes. It progressively ravaged their memories, leaving them able-bodied but unable to think clearly, if at all. And since the brain is the center of all bodily functions, it eventually ravaged those, too, rendering these respected men almost vegetative by the time God finally and mercifully reached down snatched them home. All we could do was shake our heads and ask, “Why, God?”

My speculation about their shared disease deepens even today, as I look back on their lives. Both of them lived within 10 minutes of each other their entire life. They even worked together for a time. My paternal grandfather owned his own construction business, which he inherited from his father. My maternal grandfather drove a school bus for 16 years, then worked for the state road maintenance crew for the rest of his working years. Between those jobs, he put food on the table by working for my paternal grandpa building homes.

I can’t help wondering if something struck them simultaneously during those few years they worked together in the 1960s—brushing on the same lead paint, breathing the same asbestos fibers, bulldozing the same dirt—that set this eerily similar scourge in motion decades before it drew its crushing blow to both of them.

I wonder if it was environmental, or if I carry the same genetic predisposition with me. Sometimes I’m optimistic, and sometimes it’s more of a morbid fatalistic feeling that I, too, am on this unstoppable dive toward dementia.

It is foolish to turn a deaf ear to heredity. Dementia is the strongest common denominator in my family lineage, especially among the men. Like anyone, I often wonder how the Lord will finally take me, if an accident doesn’t.

In light of what seems like overwhelming odds against me, I have researched what lifestyle changes help promote neurological health. I consciously hold my fork and brush my teeth with the opposite hand on occasion. I sometimes drive with thick gloves on. I work word and number puzzles regularly. I try to read things that stretch me. My mind still feels incredibly sharp. My memory is uncommonly good. I frequently floor my colleagues with my ability to recall random details about projects we did together years ago.

But then, both of my grandfathers were sharp as tacks until the dementia abruptly pulled the rug of recall out from under them. They were highly skilled at calculating construction measurements, shooting small game high in treetops and eyeballing plumb lines—to no avail.

In the end, I have to remind myself that dementia is not deity. God numbered my neurons when I was in the womb. They are no match for Him. He knows my frame, and has declared the beginning from the end.

I remind myself that, if I should lose my mind, He will not have lost His. My lucidity is not the measure of His love. He will sustain me with His right hand, no matter how thick the fog may get.

So while I’m in my right mind, I’m redeeming the time to trust Him more. Depend on Him more. Love Him more. Because losing my mind, as scary as that may be, is not the worst thing that can happen to me. Dementia may take my body, but it can’t touch my soul.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Letter to Joy: That Thing We Do

Every Monday my wife Joy and I are participating in a little writing project called Marriage Letters started by Seth and Amber Haines in an effort to encourage other married couples in the hard work of relationships. This week we wrote on nightly rituals. (Don’t miss Joy’s letter here.)

* * * * *

Dear Joy,

I have to admit: I have a little tinge of guilt every time we do it.

It happens on many nights, right after we tuck the kids in bed. We close their doors behind us (well, except Anna’s, because she insists on keeping hers cracked). We slide into our modest, comfy pajamas, saunter back out to the family room, plop down on opposite ends of the couch, fire up our respective laptops and stare longingly into their mesmerizing glow for the next 2 to 3 hours.

We occasionally talk, and occasionally share things on our screen with each other, in our own geeky, giggly way. Sometimes—or dare I say, often—we even find ourselves simultaneously on Facebook, posing as dueling commenters on the latest status of one of our friends. It’s sad, but true.

I guess it’s par for the course, since we both seem to be wired that way (pun intended). Some of our very first conversations as a couple took place on that chat room site in college … oh, what was it called … Cactus? My handle was Linguine. Yours was ReesesPBC. I still remember how my heart would skip a beat when your status would switch to “Active.” Yep, we’re geeks.

In our own defense, on most nights we have legitimate reasons to be dueling laptoppers on the couch. Sometimes I have work to finish up, or the church website to update. You’re putting the finishing touches on a post that goes up early the next morning, and the ending isn’t quite coming together for you. You need that time, as do I.

And there’s something great about being so comfortable with a person that you don’t feel the need to fill the room with words when you’re together. Being under the same roof is enough. I do believe we have a mutual vibe that everything’s OK when we engage in duel laptopping. We never do it if there’s any tension between us. If there is, we use the time to talk it out.

But I sense that we sometimes slide into our dueling laptop routine not for legitimate reasons, but for leisure. Those are the nights I think, “Gosh, we’re pretty sad sitting here on separate laptops having a Facebook conversation with two people on opposite sides of the world. How did this happen?

A little bit of that is OK (I think). But the truth is, I much prefer the more, oh, relational things we do together. Like when we read aloud to each other, or have face-to-face conversations during those last 2 hours of the day about how we’re doing spiritually. Or when we spoon on the *gasp* SAME side of the couch and watch a movie. And how, early in the movie, you gaze at me with those eyes that can only mean you want one thing: popcorn.

My point is this: we should be more deliberate in discerning when we need to be on the computer and when we want to be on the computer. Let’s commit to declare a night (or two, or three) of the week to be laptop-free. And you might as well throw mobile devices in there, too, which can be an equally formidable distraction.

Thousands of healthy distractions are always going to vie for our attention—not just today, but as long as we live. Let’s work on giving them the cold shoulder and getting to know each other on a deeper level, day by day.

Besides, you’re much more fun to look at. ;-)

Here’s lookin’ at you, my love,


Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Letter to Joy: Future Fantasies

Today, Joy and I decided to write letters to each other on our respective blogs on the above topic. You can jump over to her blog to read hers. We got the idea from Seth and Amber Haines, a fellow blogging couple, who hit this idea out of the park last week on their blogs. In addition to each having their own blogs, Seth and Amber are regular contributors to the collaborative blog A Deeper Story - Tales of Christ and Culture. You should check it out.

* * * * *


There’s something you should know.

Ever since we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, I’ve found myself having the most far-flung fantasies about you.

No, I’m not talking about that (this time, haha). I’m talking about the future.

“What will it be like,” I’ve often thought, “to grow old with Joy?”

From early on in our marriage, these latter-life fantasies of mine mostly revolved around unbridled world tourism—gondola rides through Venice; fjord cruises in Norway; safaris through the Serengeti; breakfasts on scenic rooftops in Mediterranean cities. The list goes on.

The almighty empty nest—and the sacred rite of retirement—would usher in a season of well-deserved delights like collecting seashells on sugary sand beaches and enjoying breathtaking vistas together for the rest of our lives. We could finally get on with our fantasy-filled life of leisure, free from the trappings of work and child-rearing—all great stuff, but style-cramping stuff.

Then early on, real life flogged those fantasies of mine right up side the head.

Over the course of our 13-year marriage, we’ve brought four children into the world, two of whom had life-threatening congenital birth defects. When Elli was an infant, we had to figure out how to manage and administer 45 doses of 9 different life-sustaining heart medications around the clock, without falling asleep at her bedside in mid-dose. We went for days on end sleeping in short shifts, taking care of a child whose default settings were set to “cry” most of the time.

We’ve stayed together through 6 open-heart surgeries, close brushes with death and innumerable nail-biting procedures between our two sick kids. Then death didn’t just brush—it visited us in the wee hours, snatching Elli from our lives when we least expected it.

In His grace, God used these trials to douse my youthful disillusionment with a heavy dose of reality. And although we’ve had our conflicts, He has been kind to keep us together in His strength.

Incomprehensibly, we still love each other. Shoot, we even like each other. We haven’t walked away from our marriage promise, despite the statistics that scream otherwise for couples in our situation.

But although my commitment to you hasn’t changed, my far-flung fantasies about the future have. Trials have a way of turning priorities upside down.

Oh, I still aspire to enjoy some of those prior delights with you. But it’s much different now. Loss has taught me that leisure is never a given this side of heaven. With Elli no longer with us, the splendor of heaven has become sweeter to me than the sands of Hawaii. The great work of ministry holds more attraction for me than the Great Wall of China.

I daydream about walking with you into the office to counsel the young couple in crisis—listening with extravagant grace, weeping with them, speaking the truth in love, seeing their marriage through one more year, or decade.

I daydream about waking up next to you in a humid, mosquito-filled tent, our salt-and-pepper hair matted from sweat, with a full day of village visits ahead of us—working, singing, sharing, learning, hugging—showing Christ’s love to everyone in sight.

I daydream about being your companion down those treacherous Bolivian mountain passes you once traveled, holding your hand as you introduce me to the men, women and children who changed your life last year, thanking them for the precious gift of hope they gave you—and in turn, gave me.

I daydream about standing next to you in special needs centers around the country (or even around the world), giving a child a voice through the foundation we formed after Elli died. Few moments in our marriage have been more exhilarating than the day we gave Sebastian his device last year.

I even daydream about co-authoring a book with you that helps bring hope and help to people out there we've never met. (And hey—maybe that’s where the exotic beach vacation comes in! The code words “writing sabbatical” can be our cover ;-).

In a nutshell, I daydream about our one-flesh ministry making more of a difference in the world than we ever could as two separate individuals. And that’s not just for some day way off in the future. That's for today, too.

My fantasies are still pretty wild, but they have taken on an accent of heaven they didn’t have before. They’re public, not private. They desire to alleviate pain, not ignore it. They pursue the world’s difficulties, not its delicacies. They reflect my strong conviction that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

So now that the secret is out … are you in?

Your fantasy-loving hubby,


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Returning to the Scene

Today, we took our 4-year-old son to the hospital for a routine procedure. 

He whimpered out his fears during the short car ride, knowing full well what was ahead.

“I don’t want to get poked,” he said in a soft, broken falsetto.

We patted him calmly from the front seat, and promised an ice cream cone on the way home.

By the time we arrived, his tears had dried, and he had moved on to other topics at hand. After we parked, he practically skipped through the parking lot toward the glass entrance. 

The huge glass canopy above us had bright photography of sunflowers and seascapes on its underside, to offer visual comfort for kids who come in on stretchers.

They thought of everything when they built this hospital, which first opened in the summer of 2008. It is a spectacular facility. Everything about it is state-of-the-art.

I should know.

In God’s providence, I’d had the privilege of serving as a parent advisor on the construction of this hospital. For several months before they broke ground in 2006, and all during its 2-year construction, I sat on a small advisory council made up of parents, children and some hospital staff.

Once a month, we would huddle in a small construction trailer where architects, interior designers and hospital executives would present drawings, designs, floor plans and flow concepts to us, to get our opinions and advice. As construction got underway, we took hard-hat tours, making suggestions every step of the way for how to make the hospital as patient-centered as possible.

So today, as we walked into the main entrance of this 3-year-young hospital, I saw my fingerprints all over the place—from the photo mural choices, to the paint colors, to the furniture, to the location of the elevators. I’d had a hand in all those decisions. This place is a real symbol of personal achievement, collaboration and great teamwork.

But that’s far from the only thing this hospital symbolizes for me.

On a chilly October Sunday morning in 2008—just a few short weeks after the pomp-filled ribbon-cutting ceremony for the hospital—I entered the lobby of the Emergency Room wing, out of breath, frantic. The ambulance had arrived shortly before with our 8-year-old—unresponsive on a stretcher—and my wife in the front seat of the ambulance.

I had stayed home until a babysitter could come and be with our other 3 kids. Then I jumped in my car and sped over to the hospital—that hospital I had come to know like the back of my hand.

I barged through the entrance to that slick, clean, brand new ER. Not a soul was in the waiting room except for the receptionist and a security guard.  The receptionist’s face fell.

“Are you Dad?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I said. 

She picked up her telephone, said a few words under her breath, and hung up. “The charge nurse will be right out to get you,” she said.

It seemed like forever, but it was only a couple of minutes until someone came out. I followed her back through the double doors. As soon as I entered the hallway, I saw another nurse wheeling a bed down the hall with Elli on it. She was draped in a starched white sheet up to her neck, so I could only see her face. 

She looked like she was sleeping peacefully, which struck me as horrifyingly strange.  Every other time I had seen her being wheeled down a hall on a hospital bed unconscious, she had a million lines, cords and IVs going into her body. There was none of that this time.

That was the moment I was sure we had lost her. She was gone.

They wheeled her body into one of the brand new triage rooms and pulled a heavy white curtain behind us, so we could be in a private place with her body. One of the nurses stayed in the space at all times. She said she was not allowed to leave us alone with her, but that we were free to stay there with her body as long as we wanted.

Joy and I slumped in chairs next to Elli, weeping and praying.

They gave us tissues, but I just kept wiping my tears with the sheet that was draped over Elli's body. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind as we sat right next to the gurney, stroking her forehead, her hair and her hand, which had now grown cold to the touch.

In a moment, the place I had once thought would always be a symbol of personal achievement for me was instantly eclipsed by the pain of losing Elli there. I would never see it the former light again.

As we left the hospital today, with Luke happily skipping out ahead of us, the memories were almost too much for Joy and I to bear, had it not been for Christ's new mercies pouring down into the moment.

My fingerprints may be all over the walls, but our hearts still roam the halls, missing the girl who left us for heaven that day.

We miss you, Elli.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Coming to Terms with [Her] Doubt

“And have mercy on those who doubt.” — Jude 22

'Broken Windows' photo (c) 2006, TheGiantVermin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
For the Christian, doubt is normal. We experience seasons of doubt about the security of our souls. We doubt if there’s a heaven, and/or a hell, from time to time. We doubt the Canon, the cross and the credibility of all things unseen. Prominent Christians misbehave, and we feel a strong temptation to dissociate with them by dissociating with God and/or the church altogether. We all have Thomas-like tendencies, and it’s a broad spectrum.

For what it’s worth, my wife and I sit at quite different points on this vast spectrum of Christian doubt, with me on the more confident end. Sure, I have doubted my faith at points in my life. I do not wear a cape. But God has been kind to give me an abiding assurance that He is good, His promises are true, and He is bringing all things to pass in His perfect time and wisdom. Most of the time.

Speaking of His wisdom, God united me permanently to a wonderful woman who has, in recent years, been severely dogged by doubt. She shrouded it for the first several years of our marriage—tagging along on my theological journey with unquestioning affirmation. We attended Bible conferences and retreats together. We sang duets together. We read theology books together. We talked about spiritual things for hours on end. There was no sign that anything was eating her. I was completely clueless.

Then in 2008, tragedy shook the rafters of our relationship, and her insides oozed out. Our 8-year-old daughter’s sudden death was a kind of soul-deep explosion that turned her affirming smile to an accusatory scowl. She began to indict the doctrines she’d once affirmed. Safety, it seemed, was something she had always expected from God. He had catastrophically let her down.

Tragedy shattered her faith into unrecognizable fragments, right before my eyes. It felt like I was helplessly watching a priceless vase fall off a table onto a tile floor.

If Elli’s death was the explosion, my wife’s spiritual recovery since has been much like the 47 reconstructive surgeries for anyone who miraculously survives a blast. She lived. Thank God, she lived. But holding her hand through this process (3 years and counting) has been marked by slow, steady improvements punctuated by discouraging setbacks and turns for the worse. It has not been an easy road being at her bedside, nursing her back to health.

As one who has a difficult time relating to chronic doubt, I first saw hers as a real downer in our relationship. It embittered me, and I did not meet it with grace. To this day, it can be a mountainous test of my patience and gentleness. I have not been the perfect husband. My responses to her doubt have, at times, been heated and condescending. Sometimes I want to hold her face in my hands and whisper, “Will you just snap out of it?”

But God has been working in me as much as He has been working in her. In my own shock, embarrassment, guilt and anger, I have experienced grace that I never thought possible. God’s grace has been sufficient, and has allowed me to spill it over into her life.

In Jude 22, “Have mercy on those who doubt” refers to people in the church to whom Jude was writing who stood on shaky spiritual ground after the destructive influence of false teachers. Forces from without had shaken the foundations of their faith, and they had not made it out unscathed. They were still staggering around the blast site, spiritually disoriented from their injuries. They were victims—yes, victims—who were still recovering from an explosion. And Jude’s words are like pure gold: “Have mercy on those who doubt.”

If God brings a person into your life who doubts—whether it’s your spouse, a close friend or a fellow church member—treat their doubt like a wound. This is no self-inflicted wound. It is probably collateral damage, shrapnel from a trial that has rattled their faith somewhere along the way. Sometimes it takes a long, long time to heal. Infections flare up and take you by surprise when you thought everything was better.

Be sure of this: no one enjoys their doubt. They want to work through it as badly as you want them to. As odd as it may sound, sometimes silence is the best counsel you can offer someone who struggles with doubt. Words—even well thought-out ones—often fall short. Hug them. Tell them you are there for them, no matter what. And pray for them. We can’t try to be their Holy Spirit and strong-arm their spiritual growth on our timetable.

Above all, be a friend who is truthful yet tender, patiently waiting for God to work his good pleasure in them. Love them unconditionally—and tell them you love them unconditionally. Weep with them. And when the time is right, do a happy dance and rejoice with them.

Or better said, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” You will probably find that you grow as much as they do in the process. It's just like God to work that way.