Seasick Sailors

“I have been to the Valley of the Shadow of Death in Israel,” said my friend Ms. Ennels the other night,  “and it is beautiful. There are streams running through it and flowers sprouting everywhere, and it is flowing with life. It is a beautiful place.”`

In a little over a week, my Dad will be having a complicated, daring surgery in Pittsburgh to clear out his abdomen of cancer. The doctor, named Dr. Bartlett, is brilliant and very well-experienced on this type of surgery, called HIPEC surgery. In fact, here’s an article about Dr. Bartlett and this specific surgery for another patient- but let me tell you, it’s a brutal surgery, comparable to ripping open my Dad’s whole stomach and continuing to slice and burn every last visible piece of cancer.

Friends, here’s the thing: Cancer has nothing on our Creator. And that’s super easy to say, but so much harder to put real trust into. In Psalm 139, a passage of scripture that’s very close to my heart, David writes,

“You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.”

That passage is so incredibly, indescribably beautiful and powerful. The God of All Things knows my inmost worries, my doubts, all of my questions and fears. And He loves me and you so much, and He can provide for us in incredible ways because of it.

I think the toughest thing about Cancer is it’s ability to tear the body apart from the inside while leaving very little trace of damage on the exterior. It’s easy some days when stuff is going well to get distracted by negative and dark possibilities, but that’s not what we should be focusing on in life. Even though we might be in the Valley of Death, it’s important to look to the streams and flowers around you, and you can’t live forever in fear of possible failure. Even though we should be prepared for whatever happens, it’s not something worth dwelling on. Still, these moments of distraction are rare, and I think it’s just the devil trying to distract us from living in the here and now- one of his favorite tricks. That guy can go to hell.

Cancer- and anything else that throws life off track like this- comes with inherent beauty. Like my good friend Ms. Ennels said, sometimes in the midst of death and darkness, there is incredible growth and goodness. My family has grown much closer because of Cancer, and we’ve become more real with one another. When you trust Jesus with everything, that’s when real joy comes- and we’ve definitely been experiencing awesome joy in the midst of this craziness. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all grown closer to Jesus and learned to lean into Him not just on our tough days, but every day. A few years ago I thought being a Christian was just a part-time job, but over and over again God’s shown me that it’s absolutely full-time to live for Him.

In that same Psalm as I mentioned earlier (139), David writes in verses 11-12:

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Nothing is too much for our Creator, even darkness is like day to Him. Our darkest days, when we think that peace and safety is impossible, God is not intimidated or deterred in the slightest. Let the phrase “Darkness is like light to You” comfort you when you’re awake in the middle of the night questioning God, or when you feel like you’ve lost control of life, or when you feel like you’re not good enough. God is good enough, He’s in control, and He turns darkness into light.

While this surgery is indeed brutal for my Dad and the recovery will certainly be long, the outcome looks very hopeful. It seems like to reach safety sometimes, you’ve got to bravely endure a tough, unknown path. I  think God does that on purpose, and that’s exactly what my Dad’s doing. I have full faith that we’re all going to come out the other side loving harder and clinging to God more because of the road we endure.

Here’s an awesome image of God that He’s been pressing on my mind a lot lately: imagine us, humans, all out at sea. Each of us is like a sailor, but we’re seasick sailors because we’re sick with sin. We’re seasick in the middle of the beautiful blue, stretching out forever in every direction. Except it doesn’t quite seem to stretch out forever, because it;s stopped abruptly by the horizon. Seasick sailors, if you didn’t know, always look to the horizon to clear their sickness; it’s a steady, unchanging object they can set their eyes on and steady their swaying hearts with. If we’re seasick sailors, then God is our Horizon. We fix our eyes on Him, and He settles or stumbling, broken selves.

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Living with Passion

What do you think about risks? I’m not talking about wearing shorts on a cold day or eating a different cereal than your daily Corn Flakes – I’m talking about completely stepping outside of your comfort zone, throwing yourself out there with no idea what’s going to happen, absolutely none.

I think we should all be willing to take these kinds of risks for things we’re passionate about, specifically, for God.

A lot of people in the Bible take a reckless risk by following Jesus. Most of His closest followers just dropped everything to follow this guy they barely knew, but I’m sure they felt God telling them to do so. If you think about King David in the Old Testament, he took a risk when he was a kid by taking on the biggest warrior of his time, Goliath. David was really passionate for God and for his country, and David beat Goliath, because God was on his side.

People say you’re defined by your wealth or your friendships or your material goods or your accomplishments at the end of your life, but I don’t think any of that really defines a person at all. I think what defines you is your passion. If you’re not passionate about something or someone, then what are you?

A lot of my friends are defined by their passion for Jesus. This is awesome, and I hope people would think the same about me. I want to be known not by some funny thing I said one time or not by how much money I earned or not by my friendship with so-and-so, but how passionate I am for Jesus and for life.

I have this buddy who lives in a different city, and we share a huge characteristic; we’re both super passionate for life, for living. Actually, most of my friends have a crazy passion for living, and it’s contagious. In the case of my friend from a different city, we’ve met in person maybe three or four times. But I told him about this crazy thing called the World Race, and he decided not to go to college next year and pursue this thing he feels like God is calling him to. He decided he wasn’t going to stick to the average life manual that the world gives us, he wasn’t going to give in to the schedule handed to us by society: go to school, go to college for four or more years, get a well-paying job, have a family.

Let me get something straight: this formula is not inherently bad. I have tons of older friends who’ve lived out this way of life, but they all have something very characteristic about the way they do it: they do it with passion.

You can be a doctor or a lawyer and have just as much passion for Jesus and for life as someone who runs around the world trying to share the gospel, risking their lives daily. You can also take risks for God every day if you do something normal, like a doctor telling a patient about hope in Christ, or a lawyer stepping out on behalf of his beliefs in ending modern slavery. Every one of us is called to different things, but sometimes, we’re forced into the same routine, and forced into it without passion.

I’m really passionate about, well, passion. When I was in middle school, I was pretty content with living without meaning, and living without any real passions. It’s really comfortable to fall into this feeling of halfheartedness, because you never really have to do much, you just sort of exist. I think a lot of my friends in my high school struggle with this, feeling like they’re okay to just survive and not thrive. But is anyone really, deep in their hearts, okay with living halfheartedly?

So I was a middle school kid just trying to fit in, telling fake stories about parties so people would think I was cool, and then I started going to this Christian school. I liked God a lot and thought He was pretty rad, but I didn’t know a ton about Him and didn’t really think I should stand out because of Him. Then at this Christian school, I started learning more and more about the Lord, but I still wasn’t super into it; I was still trying to fit in mostly. Then I hit the big leagues: high school. I was at the same Christian school,  and eventually I found myself signed up for a trip to South Africa that only high-schoolers could partake in. Yes, there were going to be lions involved, and elephants. That’s really all I heard at the initial interest meeting, and decided it was worth it just for the lions and elephants. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.

Somehow at the end of the year I found myself on a huge plane headed 8000 miles across the Atlantic. I was confident I knew what to expect and I was looking forward to more than just lions and elephants at that point. That’s something else I found about life though: sometimes, we think we’re doing something for one reason, but God has a totally different reason in mind. He knew that trip would be about way more than just lions and elephants. I saw poverty like never before, and I met kids who were completely joyful in the midst of insane tragedies and hardships. Long story short, God totally wrecked my heart on that trip. I knew I couldn’t keep living my very comfortable, passionless, haphazard American life.

Passion for living involves more than caring about just staying alive. Actually, sometimes it looks like quite the opposite of just trying to stay alive. Like this one time, my buddy and I decided to climb across a huge bridge that was in the middle of construction just because we were passionate for the photos we could take inside. (Note: I don’t entirely recommend passion that breaks laws.) The pictures turned out really awesome, and my buddy and I grew closer after that adventure. The point, though, is that crazy stuff happens when you start to live with passion, and even crazier when that passion is for Jesus.

Revelation 3:15-16 says I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” God doesn’t like when people don’t pick a side and live halfheartedly. 

I wanted to tell you guys about a crazy risk that I’m taking: I’m headed back to South Africa for a few months next year instead of going straight to college. I’ll be a photographer for an awesome organization that I volunteered with before called Abba’s Pride, and I’ll be doing some other cool missions stuff for them too. I’d love for your support through prayer, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this wild adventure soon.

I’ll leave you with this: God calls us to be passionate for Him, and sometimes that involves taking reckless risks to serve the Lord. And to my non-Christian friends, passion is still important; pick something you care about and pursue it recklessly. No matter what you do, live passionately, friends.

When Life Runs You Over

When I was a kid, I liked taking risks. Well, sometimes I liked taking risks. Other times, I was the furthest thing from a risk-taker there could be. I really liked following rules and having things go the way they were planned to, but I guess that admiration for order faded away when I got older. Still, I always enjoyed a few risks from time to time.

My family and I lived in Brussels, Belgium, for a while in my Elementary school years, and one time, my buddy and I decided it’d be a good idea to play a game called Chicken. For those of you who don’t know, Chicken is a game usually played by someone jumping into the street in front of a speeding car and seeing who would get out of the way first: the car or the person. My buddy and I were clearly not dumb enough to play that version of the game, but the concept was enticing to us. So, we came up with our own version, consisting of one of us on a bike peddling full speed at the other. Helmets, of course, were optional; so we opted out of those to increase the risk factor. Every time, one of us would move out of the way at the last second and avoid collision. To us, it was absolutely brilliant. We played a few rounds and our hypothesis was confirmed: best game ever. After a while, I was standing in the street and my buddy was coming straight at me. Every time we’d played, one of us would jump or turn in the other direction at the very last second, but it was never determined beforehand who it would be; one of us just moved. This time, I was certain he was going to move at the last second- and he was also certain that I was going to move at the last second. Before I knew it, I was flat on my back with tire marks straight down my body, no kidding. I had been slammed into the ground and run completely over by my buddy. I don’t know how I reacted as a kid, but nowadays I probably would’ve just laughed about it and gotten back up. My guess, however, is that I probably cried a ton when it happened.

Sometimes, this is exactly how life hits us. One day we’re doing fine, and the next day Jesus knocks us down with something crazy. Like when my family and I took a vacation to Orlando, and my Dad unexpectedly ended up in the hospital with three blood clots. Or, when my Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in the first place. I mean, no one could’ve seen that coming. Except God, right?

There’s something a friend told me once that I think about when life hits me like a crazy biker. My buddy said, “Has it ever occurred to you that nothing has ever suddenly occurred to God?” That’s a pretty comforting thought, right? On our worst days, when life throws the worst trainwrecks at us, God isn’t surprised or caught off guard. The thing about serving the Creator of the Universe is that He’s always one step ahead of us. In theory, that should be super comforting. That thought alone should be able to put all our worries to rest for good. But honestly, a lot of times it just doesn’t. And more often than I like to admit, I doubt God, and I doubt His plan.

Have you ever put together an elaborate puzzle only to find that you’re missing a few pieces at the very end? I feel like life experiences and lessons sometimes look like puzzle pieces, and God is piecing together something beautiful and intricate with them. And He is, for sure. But some days I wake up, and it’s like that kid ran me over on his bike again, and I can’t help but ask God where in the world stage 4 cancer fits into my puzzle-piece World. To me, it looks like there must be pieces missing, something I can’t see yet. I mean, that picture seemed like it was looking pretty good already. I like writing encouraging stuff about God and how much His love rocks, but I don’t feel like I’m super loved all the time, and some days I’m just confused about life. I think we all feel that way from time to time. But it’s important to continue trusting in the Lord; that’s what faith is all about.

There is something slightly futile in questioning the Creator of the Universe. He knows exactly what He’s doing. In the book of Romans, Paul asks his friends to remind themselves that we are all mere humans, and we have no right to question God. Paul says that humans are like unfinished pieces of clay, and we are asking the Potter, our Creator, what he’s doing to us.

Honestly, the best thing about getting hit by a bike though was that it sucked, so I learned my lesson. And it hurt a lot, and I learned to fear speeding objects and standing in the middle of the road on a whim. It seems like a normal guy wouldn’t need to be taught that first to understand the concept. I do that kind of thing all the time. I am not joking when I tell you that a few years after being run over by a bike, I decided to play Chicken again, and I got run over by a bike in the exact same way. Seriously; I am an idiot.

God knows that we’re really stubborn and don’t learn well. But how often do we realize our own stubbornness? How often, when we’re in the midst of a storm, can we look around and see what God’s teaching us? How often can we engrave a lesson on our hearts before making the same mistake twice?

Here’s a question I can’t take lightly: what am I learning from my Dad’s cancer that I can engrave into my heart long-term? Maybe it’s that life has to be lived to the fullest while we have the chance, or maybe I’m learning that looking to God in the hard times makes it way easier in the good times. Or possibly I’m just learning to lean hard into God, and not on my own understanding. Are there storms in your life you can learn from permanently, so you don’t have to be run over by a crazy bike again? In case you were wondering, after the second time I lost to a bike, I declared the game of Chicken my permanent enemy, and I won’t try it anytime soon.

I’ll leave you with this: everything in life happens for a reason. God has a perfect plan for us, and each broken way and every beautiful moment has a purpose. I don’t know most of the reasons for stuff happening, but neither you nor I are in a place to question our great Potter. So, try to learn what God’s teaching you in the moment. Try to trust in the One who knows you inside and out, and have confidence that He is in control.

Knives & Grace

You and I are both broken, worn and beat-up from sin, torn and tattered from heartbreak and rejection and hurt. We’re all pretty broken people, stumbling around looking for love in all the wrong places. Jesus knows this and loves us even more because of our brokenness; that’s why he came to save us in the first place.

The crazy thing is, God knows us fully, and knows all of our sin, and loves us the exact same. Psalm 139 says “Before a word is on my tongue, You know it completely,” and “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” God knows us deeply, completely, and loves us recklessly. He sees all our pain and sin and takes us anyway.

One time, I found myself in Dubai, in the line to get through security at the airport. After a 10-hour flight from Johannesburg, I was beat up and ready to be home. Back in Johannesburg, just before we left for the airport, the house I was staying in had a controlled power-outage, something critical to save energy in South Africa. So, we had to hastily throw our stuff together while the lights were still on and hit the road before our house lost power, giving us 20 minutes to pick two weeks worth of gear. I packed my suitcase to it’s limits and stuffed my backpack with whatever didn’t fit in the suitcase and jumped in the car. Little did I know that among the things crammed in my backpack were two very large knives. Little did I know, that is, until my bag set off an alarm in security in Dubai. Having gotten past security in Johannesburg without any issues, I figured the alarm meant nothing. I stepped aside, and an Arabic woman calmly searched through my backpack, and one-by-one, slowly pulled out these two huge pocket knives. I was shocked that I had gotten all the way to Dubai with those things, but I tried to play it cool anyway. “Oh oops, just throw those away. I don’t really need them I guess,” was all I said. The woman searching my bag stared at me solemnly, and then shouted something in a foreign language across the room. It sounded harsh and scary, and I guessed that she had probably shouted something like “Get the taser, we’ve got a knife-terrorist on our hands!” Within a minute, I was swarmed by a dozen middle-eastern safety personnel. I tried to stay calm, but incoherent harsh Arabic was being flung back and forth, and I was caught in the middle of it all, trying to act like everything was okay. Pictures of my passport were taken, and I was strictly told not to return to Dubai anytime soon. And, worst of all, they kept the knives. But, nevertheless, they let me into their country. I walked through those airport gates as a free, kniveless man, and I eventually made it safely back to the States.

Like those the hidden knives in my bags, we’ve all got hidden brokenness and sin in our stories. And just like those security guards, God takes us in anyway. Like me in Dubai, we try to act like it’s all okay, maybe we cover the brokenness and tuck it away, so it can’t see the light of day. Unlike those security guards though, Jesus looks at our brokenness and turns it into something awesome. He doesn’t want us to hide it, He wants us to grow from it and learn from mistakes. It’s like if those security guards had taken my knives and carved a sweet statue with them, and then given it to me as a free gift, except way better. It doesn’t really make sense sometimes either- God’s grace is pretty incomprehensible. To me, it seems wild that the Creator of the Universe takes our imperfections and makes us whole again, it seems insane that He accepts us no matter what.

That’s the awesome thing about Jesus. His death on the cross and resurrection wasn’t limited to just people who hadn’t done that much wrong, or to people who weren’t that broken. His gift of new life is for everyone, and those of us who are broken- which is all of us- need it even more. In Mark 2:17, Jesus says “I didn’t come to help the righteous, but the sinners. For it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” You and I are both broken sinners, and Jesus came for us.

2 Corinthians 5:16 says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Jesus gives us new life, He gives us freedom from sin that we desperately need. For those of us who have accepted his gift; live like it. Begin each day knowing that you’re a new creation, that Jesus has given you new life and you don’t need to worry about the weight of the world. You’ve got nothing to prove and nothing to lose. For those of you who haven’t yet, you can accept it anytime. It’s never too late, you’re never too far gone for God’s grace.

Think about the knives in your life, the stuff you tuck away and try to ignore. For me, sometimes that’s my selfishness or mistakes from my past. The God of the Universe sees that stuff and loves you regardless. He wants to use you and me despite our brokenness, He wants to fix stuff like our selfishness and teach us through mistakes, and it’s awesome and unbelievable. He’ll take every hidden knife, and we’ll never be the same.

Small Things, Big God.

This is the story of my favorite kind of sandal, Birkenstocks, and how God used them to teach me more about life than any textbook ever could.

Eighteen bucks on eBay sounded like a steal, so I ordered my first pair of goofy sandals on a day when I was feeling pretty good about myself a few years ago. My friends and I thought we could definitely pull these things off, and so eventually we all got our hands on some used Birkenstocks. Used is almost an understatement here, because the sandals that came in the mail a week later looked like they had been worn heavily by a bear.

Man, when those things came, they were beat up and worn down, and they barely had a sole left at all on the bottom. The worst part is Birkenstocks are meant to form to your own individual foot, and mine were already shaped like the bottom of someone else’s foot. I was in too deep at that point, and I still thought I could pull them off regardless. So, the next day at school, I proudly came to school wielding the two-strapped, off-colored things like they were a prized possession. Let me just say, I have never been more relentlessly teased and joked over something in my life than those shoes. I could barely walk the halls without catching a dozen odd glances at my feet. But I was confident in them and they were ridiculously comfortable once they shaped to my own foot, so I bravely pushed on and kept wearing them. Honestly, I didn’t care what people thought, because I really thought they looked rad. I wore those things all Summer long until my Mom finally got sick of that dilapidated pair and bought me a nicer pair from a real store, not off eBay, which I still wear.

From all the tireless jokes about my goofy sandals, I realized something awesome. I realized that it didn’t matter at all what other people thought of me, especially if I was confident about what I was doing. So my confidence grew a lot because I kept wearing those sandals, and I stopped being concerned with what other people said about them. More importantly, when I decided that I didn’t care what people thought of my appearance, then I also had to stop caring if people judged me for my faith in Jesus.

I started thinking less and less about other peoples’ perception of me, and more and more about how I could love other people and show them Jesus- because I didn’t care what they thought of me, so I had nothing to lose. And I started telling more people about my faith, living it out in more practical ways, and I became more bold about God.

God uses small things to make big changes in our lives. In John 6, when Jesus asks his disciples how they could possibly feed five thousand hungry people, Andrew comes forward and says, “Here’s a boy with a few loaves of bread and a few fish, but it’s not much.” When Andrew gives Jesus this small, seemingly insignificant thing, Jesus takes it and multiplies it to make a huge impact. Like God used those $18 sandals to help me stop striving for acceptance, Jesus takes that small offering of bread and fish and satisfied five thousand different people.

Sometimes it’s even smaller things that God uses. Every once in a while I feel a nudge in my mind to go talk to a stranger or smile at someone in the halls- possibly a totally insignificant thing to do. A lot of times, though, I think God uses these little actions of love to bring someone closer to Him, one hallway-smile at a time. Loving people is the best evidence of God we can ever prove, so next time you feel a little nudge telling you to do some small act of kindness, listen to it. God might just use it to bring Him glory.

Next time you’re in the market for some sandals, I recommend checking eBay for a pair. And next time you think doing something seems insignificant at the moment, check back from God’s perspective, and listen to the One who sees way bigger than you or me ever could.

Unwrapping Cancer

A lot of times, God does crazy things in our lives. It’s stuff that looks really good or maybe doesn’t look like it’ll be good at all, but usually God does something big, especially if we’re getting too comfortable on the Earth.

Something crazy happened in my life a few months ago, something I could’ve never seen coming. My Dad, a serious warrior for Christ, got diagnosed with stage 4 appendix cancer. And that sucks. A lot. I can’t say that everything is still fine, because some days at my house, it isn’t. But we’re leaning into God like a sailboat leaning hard into blistering sea.

Often, gifts of grace come from the Lord that are plainly and obviously gifts. But sometimes, gifts from the Lord take way longer than others to unwrap. To my family and I, that’s what cancer is right now.

There’s this awesome guy named Bob Goff who wrote a book called Love Does, which is about the way God loves us and what we should do about it, and in this book, Bob Goff talks about how being a Christian can sometimes seem like we’re making big, hard sacrifices for the Lord. Bob also talks about a game called Bigger & Better in his book. I used to play this game at church retreats as a kid, and basically you start out with something with little value, like a dime, and go door-to-door trying to get neighbors to trade the dime for something bigger and better than what you started with. When I played, we ended up with a surfboard and a new pool table. Sometimes in life, it feels a lot like we’re giving up things to follow Jesus, things that are fun or comfortable. And from an Earthly perspective, we are giving things up, things like parties and having a life full of money and even giving up our own popularity. But to Jesus, giving these things up isn’t a sacrifice at all. When we knock on God’s door, we give him all that we have, which is practically nothing, and he gives us Himself in return. That’s no sacrifice, that is the best game of Bigger & Better ever played.

Cancer, some days, feels a lot like this. It seems like a huge sacrifice, like there’s a lot that we have to give up. In some ways, there is, but not from God’s perspective. We are giving God everything we have, and in return, He is giving Himself. I know God is going to use my Dad’s cancer to wreck my family and I for Him, and hopefully we can bring people around us to Him along the way.

Already my Dad and all of us are seeing God move through cancer. My Dad told me the other day that now at work, he can freely tell people about his faith, because no one is going to stop a man with cancer. God has been so gracious to us through other people, and we’ve realized how wildly loved we are. God is teaching us about leaning into Him and trusting Him more and more, and in the process He’s drawn the five of us all even closer as a family.

Sometimes, God does crazy things. But I think this is one of those things that takes a long time to unwrap, and I know it will bring glory to God in the end.