Songwriter’s Block and Ordinary Praise

This is the third post in a series about songwriting. You can read the first two posts here and here.


Twice a year our church holds an Open Mic event. It’s a time for us to gather as friends and share our creative gifts. Usually, I’ll try to write a song or two to share how God has been at work in my life.

But there’s been one small problem these past few years: I’ve had songwriter’s block. These days, I rarely write anything that I think is any good. I try but the results too often feel rehashed and uninspired. When I sit down to write, nothing comes to mind and it feels as if I’ve forgotten how to create music.

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Why Can’t I Write Songs?

People sometimes ask me how I write songs. Do I write the lyrics first and then set them to music or vice versa? Usually, for me, it’s neither. Lyrics and music happen simultaneously. A moment of inspiration strikes and from there the song just sort of writes itself.

That’s because, for me, songs overflow from strong feelings. Many of the songs I’ve written have come from a place of deep discouragement and desperation. There is so much pent-up, raw emotion–such a need to express myself to God and be heard by him–that it bursts out as words and music.

And perhaps that explains why it’s difficult for me to write songs these days. Life feels more settled now. The valleys aren’t as low. The dry seasons don’t seem as pressing. That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges. Many of my same doubts, insecurities, and sins from the past persist. But none of these struggles feel very urgent or interesting. And if it’s something I’ve explored creatively before, why write a new song about it? Why would anyone want to hear it?

Praise in the Ordinary

Perhaps my inability to write songs in the ordinary reflects my deeper tendency to only cry out to God in times of crisis and for my heart to only well up with praise after a dramatic deliverance.

If that’s true, then it’s worthwhile for me to fight through writer’s block and continue to write new music. After all, I still have many challenges I can lift up to the Lord. And God is still very much at work in me, guiding my way and transforming me into the image of his Son.

There are new songs for all of us to sing but we must be more intentional in seeking them out.  Songs flow easily out of desperation and deliverance. But in the ordinary, we need to sit down and think. We need to ponder and reflect on how God has been good to us. We need to learn, as it were, how to write the lyrics first and then the melody, and vice versa. That might not be as exciting as waiting for the magic moment of inspiration, but the end result are just as rewarding.

This has been my experience with blogging consistently. As with songwriting, I used to only write when inspiration struck; when I had an idea or experience so urgent, that I was bursting to get it out. Those posts still come but writing monthly has meant some posts aren’t the most exciting. Writing consistently has forced me to reflect and ponder God’s Word even when life seems boring. It has forced me to push through some serious writer’s block, to keep going when I’ve felt like trashing my article and taking the month off. Writing consistently has been a challenge, but also an immense blessing.

How about you? You may not be a songwriter or a writer, but I think the basic idea still applies. Do you find yourself praising God when life is ordinary? Does your praise overflows outwards – whether that be in a meet-up, a creative outlet, a jam session, corporate worship, or in your private time with the Lord?

What a testimony it would be for us to model contentment in God to a restless and distracted world, which despises the ordinary. Whether we are songwriters or not, let us be people who are constantly finding new reasons to praise the Lord.

A New Song

Thankfully, I was able to scrape together a song for open mic night. The song is basically about what I covered in this post: how both my songwriting and praise have seemed to fade in the ordinary, and yet God is patiently at work in my life leading me to glory. Hope you enjoy! Lyrics are below:

Lyrics:

Verse 1:
The melodies used to come easy in the silence
when I needed you to meet me in the dark
I would tell you of the sorrow in my heart
Now, from the wreckage of the hurricane,
I finally found the semblance of a home
Hear the sounds in the streets as I go
But it seems the still voice fades on the paved road
Along with the lines and the lyrics that you gave Lord

Verse 2:
Turns out that you need a lot of courage just to wake up in the cold
And strength when the days pass slow
But the words don’t flow like they used to
When I would sit and sing the rhythm and blues
And it seems the still voice fades on the paved road
Along with the lines and the lyrics that you gave Lord

Chorus:
I need a new song in my soul Lord
I need a new song in my soul Lord
I pray that I’ll praise you forever

Bridge:
In the congregation
sing a new song how you walked us through
We bow low in the dirt and wait cause seeds grow slow
But the strength of the Spirit makes all things new
And every day’s one day closer
Til we pass from faith to face to face
I’m four years from the bottom
And I still praying that I’ll reach your hill
Guide the way


Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the LORD is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.

(Psalm 33:3-4)

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Why #Ballislife and Why It’s Not

Today on the blog, I’m writing about one of my favorite subjects: basketball! Hope you enjoy.

Why #Ballislife

Ball is life because basketball is like life. I’ve found the challenges I face on the court often mirror the challenges I face off of it. Because of that, basketball has often given me surprising insights into my life and walk with God. In particular, it has challenged me to examine my response to failure and adversity.

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Basketball has shown me that my default response to failure and adversity is usually frustration. Sadly, the basketball court is often a sad display of Christian character. Instead of sportsmanship, you’ll often find flaring tempers and heated arguments. I’m no exception. I try  not to show it outwardly, but my bad attitude often comes out in my scowling face and slouched body language.

Why do I get frustrated when I play basketball? It’s not the physical play or competition (I’ll come back to these later). I get most angry when I’m playing poorly–when I miss point-blank layups or have a string of bad turnovers. But its not the mistakes that make me upset per se, it’s that they make me feel like a loser. Mistakes damage my pride and I hate that feeling of wounded pride.

So what do I do instead? I project my wounded pride outward as frustration. I find another reason to be mad to avoid the truth that I’m angry at myself. So I’ll blame a hard foul, a  sketchy call, or an arrogant player. I place the blame outside of myself and feel better.

Basketball often reminds me of this important lesson: we are most volatile and dangerous when we feel like failures. Why? Because we project that frustration with ourselves outward against others. When we’re frustrated with ourselves, we react in anger at even the smallest of annoyances. We snap back at innocent questions and friendly gestures. We seethe with anger when a small thing doesn’t go our way.

And the greater the provocation, the stronger our reaction will be. That’s why I think so many of us get particularly angry when we play basketball. In and of themselves, competition and physical play don’t make us angry, but when we’re already feeling frustrated, they sure do add fuel to the fire. Throw in other prideful, equally-frustrated players and it’s easy to see why the flames so often escalate out of control.

I wonder how much damage has been committed by people who lash out against others because they are unable to cope with feelings of failure. It’s a scary and humbling thought because I see those same roots of anger running deep in my own heart, hidden beneath the surface of respectability. We must learn to come to terms with our failure and deal with our frustration, or someday we will erupt in serious and hurtful ways.

fear

Basketball has shown me that my second response to failure and adversity is often fear. Here I am in the middle of a game playing badly. As the mistakes pile up, I feel my confidence waning, even in my ability to make a simple layup or pass. Suddenly, it feels like everyone is watching, silently judging, and waiting for me to mess up again.

In that moment, there is a temptation to stop trying or to let my frustration take over. It’s easier to not try than to make a mistake. It’s easier to blame others than to face my own failures. But the game rages on and my team needs me.

It takes mental fortitude to continue competing hard in adversity. Competing hard means risking further failure. But that’s what good players do: they stay calm and remain aggressive, even after they’ve made countless mistakes.

Isn’t the same true of life? There are moments when our confidence wavers. After we bomb a job interview or after we’ve sent out countless applications and heard nothing in return. After we swore we would stand strong against a particular sin, yet find ourselves falling again and again. Our strength fails us. We lose courage to do even the simplest things, much less the daunting tasks in our lives. And yet, life goes on. Those same obstacles that terrify us remain before us. Our responsibilities don’t cease. People don’t stop depending on us. The Lord still requires us to be faithful.

How can we overcome frustration and fear on and off the court? There are practical steps to take. Hard work and practice will give us steadiness. Even when things go wrong, we are not easily derailed because we’ve put in the work a hundred times before. By continually exposing ourselves to adversity, we learn to be more comfortable in it. Over time, we learn that we can press on and that failure isn’t the end of the world.

These steps are good and there are countless athletes and individuals who succeed just by working hard and becoming mentally strong. And yet, for me, I’m reminded that I need grace both in life and to play the game. I am so weak that I need God’s grace to help me to practice and work hard. I am so timid that I need God’s grace to help me step out into the storms of adversity. I am so sinful that I need God’s grace to cover me when I fall into cycles of frustration and fear over and over again. I need God’s grace on and off the court.

Why Ball is not Life

Something rare happened last weekend: I missed basketball. I joke with people that my weekend basketball attendance is as good as my church attendance and that if I don’t play, I have a feeling akin to having missed church. I’m actually not really joking. My basketball attendance is nearly perfect and I feel strangely disoriented when I go a week without playing. That’s why, last Sunday, even though (1) I was at my church’s evening Christmas service and (2) was just recovering from the flu, I still agonized with my decision that it would probably be wise not to play.

You can probably tell from that anecdote and the first section that I’m somebody who  thinks about basketball too much. It’s true. If I’m honest, I often idolize basketball by granting it too high a place in my thoughts and affections.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about why a trivial game like basketball, whether watched or played, can easily become such a huge idol for so many. Here’s a theory from my own experience: basketball offers excitement and purpose when life often feels mundane and aimless. Work can be tedious. We slog our way through the week. At times, church can feel mundane. We sleepwalk our way through fellowship and sermons. We feel tired. At the same time, we feel purposeless and aimless. What am I supposed to be doing? Why does it feel like nothing I do matters?

And then we step on to the court. We hear the sound of squeaking shoes and pounding basketballs and it’s as if we’re transported into a different world. Suddenly, there’s excitement. The rush of seeing your shot sweep through the net. The adrenaline of coming from behind to pull out a win. Suddenly, there’s purpose and direction. I know what I’m supposed to be doing! And it feels significant when I work hard and do it. Suddenly, there’s camaraderie as I work together with my team towards a common goal. Few things can provide us with excitement and purpose like sports so we can begin to depend on them for our day-to-day, week-to-week joy.

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But, like all idols, basketball will disappoint us. It will disappoint us, first, because most of us just aren’t that good. Basketball is, to some extent, a performance-based joy. When you set your heart on playing well and winning, you will be disappointed because sometimes (or most of the time) you’ll play badly and lose . Even if you learn to just enjoy playing, we can’t play basketball all the time. Sometimes we’ll get sick like I did this past weekend. Other times we’ll be injured or we won’t be able to play because of other responsibilities. Eventually, our bodies will break down, our athleticism will fade, and playing won’t be the same.

Basketball is a gift, one I hope to enjoy and play for a long time. Basketball can also teach us important life lessons about self-control, teamwork, and resilience. But, in the grind of daily life, we must look to Jesus, not basketball, to be our life, joy, and strength.

He gives meaning and strength to our work, even in the mundane. He changes us through the preaching of his word. He empowers deep friendships in the church. He forgives our sins. He upholds and sustains us even when circumstances are hard and people fail us. In the great commission, he gives us a glorious cause worth living and dying for. In our restlessness and confusion, he guides our path and gives us true rest.

 

Seeing the Story of the King

With Easter approaching, many of us will spend time in the Gospels reading about the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this post, I wanted to share two ‘principles’ that been helpful in my own personal reading. I hope they can serve you well as you prepare for Easter.

  1. Seeing the Story – Read to Understand Structure

The best stories have compelling plots. They sweep us up into the world of the story. They introduce conflict and build tension as they inch toward the dramatic climax. Those are the books and movies that we rave about to our friends. “You have to read this book!” “That movie blew my mind!”

Recently I reread the Harry Potter series and found that I was often more excited to return to J.K. Rowling’s world of magic than to spend time in devotions. Why was it that I had an easier time absorbing myself in a secular fiction than in the story of the King?

One reason is that I struggle to see structure in the Gospels in the same way I do in modern storytelling. In a story like Harry Potter the way various events combine to form a coherent plot that builds toward a climax is pretty clear. In the Gospels, I’ve found I need to do more work if I want to understand how everything fits together.

On a surface reading, the Gospels might seem like a series of meandering and disconnected events: Jesus goes here and heals this person. Then, he goes somewhere else and performs a miracle. Then, he argues with some Pharisees and teaches about random topics, etc.

But we must make sense of the beginning and middle of a Gospel – exposition, rising action, conflict –  because they play a pivotal role in setting up the eventual climax. Without them, the climax will seem forced and implausible. When I fail to make sense how the Gospel unfolds, it undercuts my appreciation of the ending.

I’m much more excited about Scripture when I can see the structure of the book. Structure helps me to experience a coherent and compelling plot line. I can pinpoint exactly where Jesus is in his ministry. I can observe how Jesus’ relationships are evolving with different groups of people. Structure helps me to make connections between different events and see the bigger picture of what the author is trying to convey.

If you’re interested in reading for structure, I’d recommend opening up a good study Bible and finding the outline for the book you’re reading (I use the ESV online website). Or, if you feel comfortable, you can create an outline from scratch from your own study. You could also adopt a hybrid approach: start with a study Bible outline and compare it with your own outline, or vice versa.

If you haven’t heard of it, I’d also recommend you check out the Bible Project.They create animated visuals which show the structure of different books with easy-to-understand explanations. Here’s an example from the book of Matthew:

  1. Seeing the Story of the King – Read to Understand Jesus’ Character

Recently, I read an interesting article about emotional manipulation and storytelling. The author writes:

Emotional manipulation basically comes about when a show shortcuts to a sense of drama, sadness, or basically any other emotion that it hasn’t earned through the narrative itself. Normally, empathizing with a character requires first understanding that character as a valid human being – when you employ emotional manipulation, you use other dramatic tricks to avoid the need to fully characterize people and explain the stakes of their feelings. This generally involves something like introducing a simple character and then immediately providing them with a tragic backstory, in an attempt to get the audience to care purely out of human empathy and projection without doing the work to make the audience believe in that character on their own merits

We’ve all seen stories where an author tries to evoke emotion without doing proper character work and it falls flat. There might be spectacular action,tragedy, or even death in the story, but we’re not moved because there’s no reason to care about any of the characters.

If we’re not careful, I think something similar can happen when we read the Gospels. In an effort to make the cross central, we can divorce Jesus’ climactic sacrifice from his character. The cross becomes less about a real person, and more a series of propositions. But just as stories don’t affect us when we don’t care about the characters, the cross becomes less moving when we lose sight of who it is about.

J.I. Packer writes this about holding the person and the work of Christ together:

“It is not biblical thus to isolate the work from the Worker…What the New Testament calls for is faith in or into or upon Christ himself–the placing of our trust in the living Savior, who died for sins. The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who made atonement. We must not, in presenting the gospel, isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ whose cross it was”

I feel most dull to the sacrifice of Christ when I lose sight of his character. When I feel distant from him, the Gospel story feels no different from any of the countless deaths in others stories in novels or on screen. Reminders about the cross begin to feel almost like that author who shortcuts his way to my emotions. I know this should be emotionally moving, yet what makes this man so special?

On the other hand, Jesus’ sacrifice feels fresh and exciting when I understand his character; when I feel I know him as a person. When I see his personality as he interacts with others; how he responds when he is sinned against or encounters difficulty. All those things help deepen my appreciation for the Gospel. Then, when I see Jesus nailed to the cross, it moves me. Here is the greatest, the kindest, the most selfless and strong man I have ever met. The perfect Son of God who humbled himself and became a servant. Why is he on that tree? How could this happen? Who put him there? What grace that he should die for all of my sins!

What are some practical ways to see the character of Christ? I find that seeing structure helps me. When I see the Gospel as disconnected stories, it’s hard to form a coherent picture of who Jesus is. But when we understand the unfolding plot, we can begins to see patterns in the way Jesus acts.

Something that has been helpful for me is to know the different groups that show up frequently in the various stories: the disciples, the hostile religious leaders, the crowds, and the many individuals responding in faith. What are each of these groups like? How do they act?

Once I’ve answered that, I ask myself how am I like these characters? Over the years, I’ve seen my slowness and pride in the disciples and my hypocrisy in the Pharisees. I’ve seen my shallow faith in the crowds and my neediness in those who came to Jesus in faith. Then, when I see how Jesus responds to each of these groups, I feel I know him in a very personal way. I can see how he responds in particular situations and apply that to my relationship in Him.

When I do this, I remember that there really is no one like Jesus. I see that the cross is no piece of emotional manipulation, but the highest expression of the love that Jesus had showed throughout the Gospels.

I’ve always feared Easter a little. I know it is a special day, but when I don’t prepare well Easter Sunday feels like coming in two-thirds of the way through a movie and seeing the climax without the set up. It’s hard to be properly affected even if I want to be. I pray that in the weeks leading up to Easter, we would ready our hearts and minds to approach the cross, and then – praise God! – the empty grave.

 

Wrestling with the Weight of Hell

Hell is a hard and weighty doctrine. These past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fairness and goodness of God in hell and judgment. I hope to share more in posts to come, but in this post, I want to share how two passages, Ezekiel 18 and Genesis 18, have been helpful to my thought process.

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If you have time, I encourage you read the passages in full but for the sake of length, let me briefly summarize them.

In Ezekiel 18. God is responding to Israel’s complaints that they’re being unfairly punished for the sins of their fathers. He explains to Israel the principles that govern his justice: each soul dies for his own sin, not the son for the father’s, nor the father for the son’s. The righteous man who walks faithfully with God will surely live; the righteous man will die when he strays from righteous path; and the wicked man will live if he repents and turns to God. God ends with an invitation for Israel to turn from their sin and live.

In Genesis 18, God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. A distraught Abraham begs God to spare the two cities if he can find 50 righteous men. When 50 aren’t found, Abraham asks God to spare the cities if he can find 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous men. When none are found, Abraham returns to his place.

Here are some thoughts on how these two passages have helped me think through God’s goodness and justice in hell.

Question: What is God’s Heart in Sending a Sinner to Hell? — 

My Response: God is sovereign and wrathful, but also sorrowful and reluctant in carrying out judgment.

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I can’t think of anything more important in our Christian life than our view of God. It’s more than just an abstract or intellectual issue; it’s an immensely practical one. Our view of God affects the way we relate to him in our day to day lives. It changes whether we come with a heart of joy or of fear, of worship or of resentment.

In forming our view of God, we must acknowledge that God is incredibly complex. Knowing this, we need to be careful not to misunderstand God or go beyond what Scripture tells us. We also must make sure to balance each particular attribute of God with the rest of his revealed character (here’s an Ask Pastor John that I found helpful).

For me, God’s wrath, jealousy, judgment, and his sovereignty in election are some of those complex concepts that, if viewed alone, threaten to warp and distort my view of God and cause me to doubt Him. If I focus too much on his anger, for example, I begin to see him as scary and cruel, waiting to break out in anger at even the smallest offense. If I isolate God’s sovereign pursuit of his glory from the rest of his character, I begin to imagine Him calmly and coolly predestining sinners to hell for his own pleasure. When I begin to doubt God’s character, I become hesitant or even resentful when I come before Him.  I lose my love and wonder at the Gospel. I even imagine myself as more compassionate than God since I am somehow more willing to forgive and see the good in nonbelievers than He is.

It would be easy if we could just sweep his wrath or sovereignty under the rug, but that would disregard the clear witness of Scripture. God is angry, does predestine, and does delight in justice. How can we balance these different attributes as we try to understand the whole character of God? It has been helpful for me as I think about God’s anger and his sovereignty to also remember his sorrow and reluctance in carrying out justice upon sinners.

Ezekiel 18 shows me God’s sorrow in judgment. In verse 23, the Lord declares: have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked…and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Later he pleads: why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (v.31-32). Genesis 18 shows me God’s reluctance in judgment. Five times, he heeds Abraham’s request to look for righteous men in Sodom, each time lowering the requisite number needed to turn away wrath. Eventually, when no righteous men are found, we see that God’s original intent to destroy Sodom on the spot was not hasty, out of control, or an overreaction, but plain justice. The Lord would have held back his wrath for even ten righteous men if they were to be found.

Combined, these two passages show that God’s judgment is not driven by malice, nor is he disengaged with those under judgment. God’s compassion shines forth even in his wrath in the form of anguish and his patient hope that sinners might repent. God feels that same desire I feel–that none should perish; that each person made in the image of God, with a soul, hopes, longings, and dreams, would be restored to his Creator; however, he also has an infinitely greater understanding of justice and the heinousness of sin than I do. No matter how much he loves us, he cannot violate his decree that “the soul who sins shall die”; nor can he ignore that “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is very great and their sin is very grave” (Ezk 18:4, Gen 18:20). So, God judges and destroys. Yet, even in judgment, he is not gleeful or vindictive, but sorrowful and patient, preferring that the proud heart would have embraced the simple repentance that turns away wrath.

It has been helpful to let God’s sorrow and reluctance in judgment color the way I view his wrath and his sovereignty. Yes, God is wrathful, but he patiently withholds his promised wrath, not wishing any to perish (2 Pet 3:9). Yes, God is sovereign in salvation, but that in no way dampens God’s sorrow or his pursuit of sinners. I may not understand how it all works, but God knows we will fall into sin and he is surprised and indignant when we do. He knows who will repent and who will be lost and he pleads for non-elect sinners to come back and weeps for those who don’t.

We see wrath and sovereignty mingled with sorrow when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem:

[41] And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, [42] saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. [43] For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side [44] and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)

Jesus wholeheartedly accepts the justice of God’s wrath against Israel for their sin. He knows God has sovereignly hidden the truth from their eyes. He knows that many in Israel will reject him, persist in their sin, and be lost. He knows that God will judge them by destroying the temple. And he still weeps for them. He still spends three years pleading, inviting, begging for them to come and accept the Savior they’ve been waiting for. He still wished they knew that day what made for peace with God.

Question: Is it okay to wrestle with the idea of Hell? —

My Response: Yes, we can bring our questions honestly if we will also bring them humbly.

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In Ezekiel 18 and Genesis 18, both Israel and Abraham ask questions regarding the justice of God. In Ezekiel, Israel asks, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?…the way of the Lord is not just” (19,25). In Genesis 18, an anguished Abraham cries out, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?… Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (23-25).

How does God respond to each of these questions? We find that God takes their questions seriously and also their sin seriously.

In Ezekiel, He rebukes Israel for their question: Hear now, O House of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” The children had focused on their unjust suffering, instead of taking a serious look at their sin. But God is also patient with the children. He could have responded only with a question as Jesus often did with the Pharisees, but he repeatedly explains his ways to them and extends this heartfelt invitation:

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the LORD GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions. Cast away from you you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the LORD GOD; so turn, and live. (18:30-32)

How does God respond to Abraham? Abraham speaks to God with surprising boldness. Yet, God does not rebuke him, but patiently hears and accepts his request. At the same time, God does not absolve Sodom and Gomorrah because of what Abraham might have felt or believed about their righteousness. He took their sin seriously and dealt with them accordingly.

I could be wrong, but I believe God treats us the same way when we wrestle with his justice and goodness in sending sinners to hell. He takes our questions seriously and he takes sin, both ours and the world’s, seriously as well. If there are sinful roots and assumptions in our questions, God will not be afraid to call them out. And if God’s justice demands punishment, he will not change or compromise because of our feelings or preferences.

I believe this give us a helpful paradigm about how we should ask questions to God. Namely, we can be honest with God but we also must be humble before him.

Since God takes our questions seriously, we can come to him with boldness and emotion.  We can say things like: Far be it from you! Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? We can give expression to our questions and have their complexity acknowledged. Our God is not an insecure tyrant who allows no questions; he is a patient and loving Father who welcomes his angry and perplexed child into his arms. We in turn can give full vent to our questions and still trust our Father holds us and is good.

I think bringing our honest questions to God can be more than merely acceptable; it can actually be a beautiful expression of faith. I love Abraham’s question: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (v. 25). The ambiguity of questions allows for tension between certainty and uncertainty. I believe there is a sense in which the question is rhetorical for Abraham: he is thinking to himself, “of course, the Judge of the Earth shall do what is just!” And yet, I also believe there is a genuine struggle in Abraham’s heart: “Will you do justice God? Because it doesn’t feel just, O Lord” Questions allow for certainty and uncertainty to exist simultaneously. When we use our questions not to accuse God but to plead before him, I think it’s a profound expression of faith.

We can be honest before God but we must also come humbly because of our sin.We must remember that our judgment can be clouded by sinful emotions and by our finite human understanding. This means that even when we feel strongly about something, we can be wrong. For me, this is comforting. I don’t want to come with infallible knowledge to a bumbling and inept king. I want to come and learn at his feet. Sometimes I feel like my doubt is too great and I’ll never make sense of my faith. I don’t want that feeling to be right! Praise God that I’m often wrong.

We can be honest and direct with God, but we also must remember he is holy and awesome. We must ask as Abraham did: “Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak…I who am but dust and ashes” (27,29). God is gracious, but he is the king, and we are the beggar. He is the one with understanding and we are the ones who have come to learn. We are asking for God’s patience of us, not the other way around, and God’s answers to our questions are all of grace.

Finally, we must humbly accept the answer we receive from God. In the end, we must trust God’s character and accept his designation of those who are righteous and those who are unrighteous, as well as the punishment which the unrighteous deserve. Abraham, at first, believed that there were righteous men in Sodom. However, when God found none, he trusted God’s judgment. In the same way, we can, like Abraham, anguish about the destruction of nonbelievers and the good things we see in them, but we must learn (and study and restudy) God’s standard of righteousness and unrighteousness. We must trust the justice and sorrow of the God who sent his very own Son to save us.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking around. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you wrestled with the doctrine of hell? If so, how have you made peace with God’s judgment? what passages have helped you and how?

[22] Note then the kindness and the severity of God… (Romans 11:22 ESV)

 

 

Why I Find Writing and Blogging Worthwhile

It’s crazy to think that I started this blog the summer of my senior year in high school–more than five years ago! 42 posts later, I’m still slowly chugging along. I’ve had long dry spells throughout the life of this blog in which I posted infrequently or not at all. A big reason for that inconsistency was I wasn’t sure what priority I should place on writing. My posts run on the long side, and long posts take time and energy. With so many good things worthy of my time and energy, why spend it on writing?

Here are a few thoughts on why I’ve decided it’s worthwhile to write in a public forum (aka blog). Who knows, maybe this will convince some of you blog fence-sitters to take the plunge? One can hope…

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Writing as Ministry

How has God gifted me? What do I enjoy doing? How can I build up the body of Christ? How can I reach out to others? Where is there a need?

Those are questions we ask ourselves as we seek to find where God wants us to minister in the church. For me, I think writing can be one of those ways of ministering to others. I know I still have a long ways to go as a writer, but I do think it’s an area where God has given me ability and interest. English was always my favorite subject in school and was my major in college. I’m always thinking about random stuff and trying to explain things that don’t make sense to me, which is a natural fit to be expressed through writing.

I think writing has unique opportunities for both inreach and outreach. My blog is a reflection of what I’m thinking and feeling in the ups and downs of my Christian life, as well as God’s faithfulness through it all. My hope is that by sharing openly and honestly, yet still thoughtfully and hopefully, I can resonate with both believers and nonbelievers. I can give a voice to discouraged brothers and sisters and articulate questions and struggles that might otherwise go unsaid. At the same time, I can show my unbelieving friends that there are Christians who struggle in very human ways, yet still think well and have strong faith.

I’ve often envied other people’s ministry gifts. People who can preach well, or counsel powerfully, or administrate and lead in a way that others joyfully follow them. I’m realizing more and more I’m limited in all of those areas and that’s okay. John Newton admitted his letters, and not his preaching, were oddly his most effective ministry (and man, if you haven’t read Newton’s letters, you should check them out). God will raise up gifted administrators, preachers, counselors, and leaders. Perhaps he is calling me to expand his kingdom rule to a path less traveled, and perhaps my writing can play a part.

Writing to Redeem Social Media

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I don’t post much on social media. That doesn’t mean I’m somehow more humble or godly. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m a consumer on social media. I refrain from posting partly because I don’t have anything interesting to say and partly for fear of putting myself out there and not being noticed. Instead, I use Facebook and other social media mostly to relieve my boredom with updates from my friend’s lives. My social media usage is ultimately selfish–I take what other people post for my own entertainment and contribute nothing worthwhile in return.

Recently, I began posting the link to new blog posts on my Facebook page. Prior to that, I had refrained for a number of reasons, some good, some bad. On the one hand, I was afraid of writing to gain the applause of people–I know my heart is so prone to finding joy in those ego-satisfying red notifications. On the other hand, I was afraid of having others read about and see my weakness. It’s okay for close friends to read, but it’s different when it’s out in the open for everyone. I was also afraid of being misunderstood–”Look at that guy who posts his writing on facebook, who does he think he is?” We all have those thoughts from time to time, and I didn’t want to be thought of as ‘that guy’.

Ultimately, I decided to start sharing the links again because I felt like the benefits outweighed the risks (although I know I need to constantly examine my heart motives!). God calls us to extend his kingdom reign to every sphere of life for his glory. The sphere of social media, for better or for worse, plays a huge role in our lives. In my experience, however, it’s an area relatively untouched by Christian influence. I see lots of playful joking and pictures of fun experiences and good food and NBA Basketball memes. That’s all good. I also see lots of cringe-worthy stories in my Facebook News sidebar and cringe-worthy rants from Christian and non-Christian friends. That’s not so good.

But how cool would it be if social media could be a place where Christian share what they’ve been learning and thinking about, how God has been faithful to them, or even how they’ve been struggling and trying to hold on to God’s goodness? What if our faith, with all its beauty and warts, was on display for the world to see? I think blogging can be a way to do that.

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Writing for Understanding by Faith

As a principle, I try not to sugarcoat or simplify in my writing; rather, I try to share my struggles as they really are and to express questions and tensions in their most potent form–that is, the way I feel them myself.

That can be a scary prospect. I often feel that certain struggles should go unshared and certain questions unasked, because what if I can’t find the solution? What if there is no solution? Better to file doubts and discouragement into the cabinet in the back of my mind. It’s scary also because there aren’t always easy answers. Oftentimes when I write, I don’t write because I’ve figured out the answer; I’m figuring out the answer as I write. I’m afraid of being a hypocrite and portraying myself as more sure and more okay than I actually am. I’m afraid that, in being honest, I might slowly collapse for the world to see.

Writing publicly for me is an act of faith. It is me saying, “I’m not afraid of doubt or despair, but I trust that with my Lord’s help I can confront them head on. I can’t always see the outcome, even when I’m writing, but I trust that he will bring understanding, he will keep me through every season, and he will use my weakness for his glory. And because of that I can blog.”

Those are a couple of reasons why I choose to blog. How about you?

For those of you interested in reading more about writing as a Christian, here are a couple of fun Piper interviews and articles about his thoughts on writing:

  1. http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/has-god-called-me-to-write
  2. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/self-doubt-and-writing
  3. http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-important-is-a-christian-writer-s-influence

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“And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” (1 John 1:4 ESV)

Thumper, Ellie, and Lessons of the Father’s Goodness

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As some of you may know, Thumper passed away this past April after 8 years with our family. It was pretty rough. I felt like I had lost one of my best friends. At the same time, I didn’t know what to think about her death. The Bible didn’t seem to talk much about animals or pets, at least to my knowledge. And while I couldn’t rule it out completely, I was hard-pressed to argue that I’d see Thumper again in heaven. Theologically and Biblically, it seemed Thumper’s death was a non-event.

But how, I wondered, could something that felt so personally significant seem so theologically insignificant? And, more broadly, how should I think about pets–their lives and their deaths–in a Biblical and God honoring way?

I’m not sure if I’ve answered those questions in this post, but here are some of my scrambled musings from these past few months:

Saying Thank You for a Timely Gift:

Thumper’s death was sudden and unexpected. There was no time to brace myself or even to say goodbye. In the days following, I found myself wishing I could see her for just a few moments to give her a big hug and tell her ‘thank you’. Yes, I know that’s corny, and yes, she’s a dog who doesn’t understand English. But I really felt like she had been a huge blessing in my life and I wished I could tell her that.

I’ve written in the past about my struggles with loneliness (here and here), insecurity (here), and doubt (here). Thumper helped me in very real ways during some of those seasons of deep discouragement. Sometimes just the presence of a friend can lift the fog of loneliness and Thumper was often that constant companion. She was always eager to play or lie quietly by my side. She was there to greet me with a wagging tail and a smile after a long day. When Katie took my room and relocated me to the couch, she was my roommate sleeping next to me on her big red chair. With her, I never had to worry about measuring up, fitting in, or feeling like I had to think up something interesting to say. I could be myself. She made time at home restful and enjoyable. She was there for the countless dogwalks I spent praying or wrestling through a tough question. It was always comforting afterwards to look down and see her happily panting beside me.

What was I to do with that gratitude? It felt like a waste not to be able to express it in some meaningful way. Ultimately, I realized my desire to thank Thumper was misplaced–it reflected my human tendency to make much of creation, rather than the Creator. Unlike Thumper, God hears my prayers and deserves my praise. He gave me Thumper as a gift of common grace to help me through difficult seasons, just as he had orchestrated countless other people, events, and conversations to sustain me these past 8 years.

As a Christian, I know my thanksgiving is never wasted. I can always give thanks to my infinitely wise Father–for big things like salvation, and also for more ordinary things, like a dear pet. Nothing is too small a reason to give thanks to God. Thank you Father!

Called to a Greater Love by the Greatest Love:

I’ve heard pastors talk about video games as fake war and pornography as fake love. Video games give the adrenaline of heroism without the danger of real battle, while pornography grants the pleasure of sex without the sacrifice or commitment of a real relationship. The end result, the argument goes, is a whole generation that wants instant and easy gratification, without any cost.

That’s a subject for a different post, the point I want to make is that if we’re not careful, I think something similar can happen with our pets: they can become a source of easy and non-costly love that replaces the costly love of human relationships. Christoph sums it up best in ‘Reindeers are better than people’ (or if you prefer Eeyore:  Donkey’s are better than people):

Reindeers are better than people
Sven, don’t you think that’s true?

Yeah, people will beat you
And curse you and cheat you
Every one of them’s bad except you

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He’s right! Pets are easier to love than people. Relationships are messy and require work. People do hurt you. They have problems and annoying quirks.  They’re tiring. They bring out your insecurities. Pets, on the other hand, are furry and cute and always happy to see you. They can give the affection and loyal companionship we seek in relationships, while demanding far less than their human counterparts. I’m not saying pets are bad, just that if we’re not careful, we can take something good, like a pet, and use it for wrong purposes.

I think that was true for me. I’m naturally very introverted and shy. I often find social interactions tiring and you’ll often find me making excuses to avoid gatherings or hangouts. I wouldn’t say I ever thought Thumper could replace human friendship and community, but I do think she minimized the negative consequences of isolation, and thus made it easier for me to hide at home.

One of the big lessons God has been teaching me this past year is to fight my instinct to withdraw and instead to love people. More specifically, he’s been challenging me to commit to the church in greater ways; to better serve my family, especially as an example for Katie as she grows up; and to share his grace with my friends who desperately need him. All of these things require me to step out of my comfort zone and love in more costly ways. I have to die to pride and laziness in the church, impatience and selfishness at home, and distraction and earthly-mindedness with non-Christian friends. I’m forced to depend on God in deeper ways. I can love a pet by myself, but I cannot summon Christlike love by my own strength. I must meditate on and draw near to the amazing love that Jesus has shown me.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but when I reflect on the timing of Thumper’s death, I see God’s wisdom and goodness. He allowed her to be a part of my life for a season, because he knew the inner turmoil in my heart and knew I could use all the help I could get. But now, as He calls me to move outward from isolation and self-introspection back into community, he saw it fit to take her away. He knew that taking away Thumper would challenge me to embrace a more costly and ultimately a more mature love. He blessed me through Thumper’s life and is teaching me to love in her death. Truly, he works everything–both big and small–for my good.

Ello Ellie!

When my family asked me if I wanted to get another dog, I was hesitant. The wounds from losing Thumper were still fresh, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to experience that again. I tried to put off the decision but it seemed I was in the minority–my dad missed having a dog around, Katie wanted a puppy to play with, and my mom wanted a new exercise buddy. So, with Anthony’s departure to Portland imminent, we decided to go ahead and add a new member to the family.

Meet Ellie Autumn Locke, our new Goldendoodle! (I picked the first name, Katie chose the middle name) We picked her up this past weekend:

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Why did I choose the name Ellie? Ellie is named after a character in Pixar’s Up. Her reddish fur resembles the crazy red hair of her cartoon counterpart. I like Ellie’s character. She’s spunky, crazy, and adventurous, but also sweet and caring. I also like how Pixar movies combine substance and emotional gravity with simple and imaginative storytelling. Their movies have a sense of childlike wonder–which fits well for the name of a family pet.

But more along the lines of this post, Ellie’s name serves as a sort of tribute to Thumper and the lessons God has taught me through her. Ellie, you’ll remember, passes away early in the movie and her death serves as the catalyst for Carl’s growth. He begins the movie as a cynical and withdrawn man but over the course of the movie,  he learns to courageously pursue adventure and love in deeper ways. I hope my time with my pets can drive me to do the same.

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So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do [like having a pet], do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV)

 

Ordinary Miracles

A Testimony of Grace

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to share my testimony with some friends. As I was thinking about what I could say, I realized that I wasn’t completely sure myself. How exactly did I get here? In the past when I’ve given my testimony, I’ve confidently spoken of specific events and relationships leading directly to specific realizations, which in turn led to greater knowledge of and commitment to Christ. Looking back now, however, I don’t think I can speak with such certainty. Sure, there are people and occasions that stand out in my mind as having special importance, but I can’t piece them together into what you might call a “standard” testimony. My testimony is less like a linear timeline and more like one of those crazy tree diagrams that no one can interpret or understand; with lines crossing and extending off in all directions; intertwined and tangled in such a way where it is hard to see where one branch begins and another ends.

What’s interesting (or uninteresting depending on your perspective) about my testimony is that the progression of my faith has occurred in such an ordinary way. I’ve never had a sudden moment of revelation like the Apostle Paul, where God altered the course of my life in an instant; nor did I come to faith by seeing God work in an extraordinary way like those who witnessed and experienced Jesus’ miracle’s in the New Testament . My testimony from all surface appearances hardly seems special.

How did I get here? I can only speak in generalities. Who I am now is the result of countless causes leading to countless different effects; it would be useless and impossible for me to even try to identify them all. All I know is that the majority of my growth has happened in the mundaneness of everyday life. I’ve been shaped by years upon years of sermons; some amazing, others good, and others forgettable. If you asked me for a sermon that changed my life, I would have a hard time naming one or telling you what it was about; and yet, I know every sermon and Sunday morning has been important in ways I will never be able to remember or explain. Each one has played a role in softening my heart so that slowly I might be able to see and understand the light of the glorious Gospel. Similarly, I’ve been influenced by countless different relationships: brothers who have exemplified the humble love of Christ, leaders who have faithfully taught me, and even those who have hurt and abandoned me. I could try and go on and on about every instance that has impacted me, but ultimately, all these things lead back to one undeniable cause: God. For who else could orchestrate ordinary people and ordinary events to change a heart that cherished sin into one that follows Christ? What other explanation is there for such an extraordinary effect?

If only I had a perfect memory, I would love to look back and see exactly how he did it; how he grew me through times of joy and pain and sorrow and times when I though nothing was going on at all. I want to look back at the moment where he first saved me and awakened the eyes of my heart in repentance and faith to the love of Christ. But alas, my memories are hazy and vague. Standing here as a redeemed child of God, all I can do is look with awe and admiration at the handiwork of God. What a mystery, what amazing grace! He has worked a miracle in my life and saved me. To him be the glory!

For a long time, I’ve disregarded my testimony as plain and boring, but the more I think about it the more I realize it is actually the opposite. The plain boring testimonies are the most interesting ones! After all, its relatively easy to explain why someone might love Jesus Christ if say, they felt the risen Jesus’ wounds like Thomas did, or if they got healed of leprosy. But why on earth do I love Jesus? All the odds are against me. Why am I following, when so many others just like me aren’t? Why do I believe when the temptations and distractions of the world are overwhelming? when I am the weakest of all and the foremost of sinners? I know not how or why, just that I have been saved by grace and that there’s nothing ordinary about that.

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)


In Moments Like These

I’ve been learning a lot about time during these past few months of college. Time is precious and scarce; it needs to be redeemed, stewarded, and used for the glory of Christ. But coming home for the holidays has reminded me of yet another important aspect of time. (Warning: This post as a whole is pretty over- dramatic, but bear with me… I’m trying to practice my english skills and write like C.S. Lewis. Also, this may not make any sense.)

Returning home for break is strange. Mostly everything is the same; certainly if I had not been away I would notice no differences at all, but since I have been away I can sense small changes; so subtle that I can’t even express what they are.  There was the moment of first walking in through the door of my house and seeing everything more or less as I had left it, except a bit messier and with a few things rearranged; my parents were their normal cheerful selves, Katie a bit bigger but just as motor-mouthed as usual. Then there was first reuniting with friends who are more or less the same as I remember them, except, of course, slightly different; reshaped and refined by the millions and millions of moments that make up a few short months. Those moments felt like I had walked through a door to the past, perfectly preserved just as I remember it; and it truly would be so if time had not passed and pushed everything forward a few inches. Now, perhaps this is all because I’m a freshman and it’s been my first extended period of time away from home, but I suspect to some extent this strangeness will always be so.

As I was thinking about this, I realized that this process will happen again every break, next year and the year after that (…and soon we’ll be too old to have breaks anymore ), slowly and incrementally, until we’re all completely different people. My parents will grow older, Katie will grow up, and my friends will all change and mature. We will, at least for these next few years, part during the school year and reunite together come Christmas time mostly the same, but a few months older, wiser, and more experienced than we were before.

Where am I going with this? Honestly I’m not quite sure myself if this even makes sense, but here’s my thought: we must value the time we spend with others because these moments happen only once and will never be the same again. Every moment stands alone; the next may be mostly the same, but never exactly. Things like coming home for breaks make these differences, which happen everyday, more apparent, because we are absent from the company of our family and friends for longer, making the differences between moments of interaction more easily visible.

I think this is especially pertinent in regards to the area of family. I have lots of time to spend with my family during these 3 weeks off. There is a temptation, however, not to do so; but rather to spend most of my time on my computer, sleeping, or spending all my time outside the house. After all there will be Christmas break next year and the year after that just as there always has been. And yet, next Christmas break will be different than this one. Katie will be a year older as will my parents. And how can I, in my pride, even assume that I will be alive another year to make amends for half-heartedly loving my family this year? Is not this break a precious and unique opportunity from God to love my family as they are in these moments, that if I do not redeem, will be lost forever? The same principle applies with the time I spend with those at church and with friends. Is this break not an irreplaceable chance to meet them where they are now, and to serve and encourage them? Tomorrow, next year, next week, they will have different needs, praises, stories to share, and lessons they are learning; if I waste this moment it will be gone forever. Since the preciousness of an object is measured by its scarcity, then our every moment spent with one another, at home or away, becomes immensely precious because every moment is distinct.

Truthfully, this is just a abstract idea that I thought was interesting enough to write about. I am sure there are many other more biblical reasons why we ought to treasure our time with others. This, if anything at all, hopefully serves to highlight that every seemingly mundane  interaction and ordinary conversation has enormous worth. Moments are precious and furthermore people are precious. Let us never approach our relationships lethargically, always believing there will be an abundance more of future moments to redeem. The time we spend with others is irretrievable and priceless. Break or no break, whether we’re away from those we love or if we see them every day, may we view every moment together with others as a valuable and unique opportunity to display the love of Christ.

On another related note, I’ve noticed that when I think of this concept of “using time well” I tend to think of time only as it relates to “free time.”  In reality, however, time encompasses our entire lives. There is nothing we do that is outside the reaches of time. Using time well then is more than limiting/avoiding facebook, video games, and other frivolous things; it’s redeeming the time we spend at church, with friends and family. It’s taking every second that God has given us and glorifying Him through whatever we do. Spending time well is spending life well and a life well-spent is one used for the glory of Christ.

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12)