God Is Making All Things New

The old countdown...

Somewhere between now and January 31st, roughly 35% of us who have established a list of New Year’s resolutions will break at least one of them. By the end of the year, over 75% of us will have probably abandoned these goals altogether. Trends like this exacerbated by the constitution-decimating grind of a Chicago winter make most people in my home town already a bit less hopeful about 2012. What a difference a couple weeks can make! Remember the way things seemed back on January 1?

Twee hearts were still aflutter from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” More macabre Batman fan-girls and boys alike were just getting excited about the promoted conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night series this July. Alarmist cabals remained consternated by the conclusion of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar heralding the supposedly immanent end of the world–perhaps through the Nibiru collision. On the soberly optimistic side, the payoff of 2011’s Arab Spring and Occupy Pretty-Much-Everywhere suggested that my generation was finally getting a bit more politically proactive, albeit haltingly and not always productively. On the deeply foreboding side, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 evidently suspended the Bill of Right’s protection of due process in its now infamous provision for the “indefinite detention” without trial of any American citizen suspected of terrorism.

And while grassroots politically fascinated Americans like yours truly found a legislative silver lining in the shelving of SOPA and PIPA week, most people I know didn’t have a clue what was even at stake (to hilarious albeit profane effect in the case of these Twitter users baffled by the blacking out of Wikipedia). Most of us have simply moved on from the alternatively cute, exciting, menacing, promising, and disconcerting tropes attending the birth of 2012 to the more stressful but not quite as game-changingly eventful toldderdom of 2012. Already, this New Year doesn’t feel quite so “brand” and “spanking” as was so recently the case. The best winter holidays are over. Our old habits and fears and comforts and conditions haven’t changed all that much after we’ve rubbed the party glitter from our eyes.

Demonstrator in the "Stop SOPA / PIPA" efforts

Where can we find a more substantial, focused source of motivation and follow-through? What can serve as our anchor? How can we pick out that north star amidst the clouds obscuring our vision to chart a course forward? I don’t know what the rest of this year will bring, but I’m convinced that one of the best shots we have at accomplishing the work legitimately requested by all those interrogatives above is the following truth:

God is making all things new.

That’s it.

Nothing else laying either predicative of descriptive claim upon this year means m0re than this single, deceptively simple sentence. You and I already know that 2012 will be filled with its share turmoil and fortune, but nothing amounts to a hill of beans compared to the overarching truth that the Supreme Lord of all Creation is guiding every single thing towards a purposed conclusion marked by cataclysmic, divine renewal: God is making all things–all things–new. The second to last chapter of the Bible puts it this way when we follow the New Living Translation of Revelation 21:1-8:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

 3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

 5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”  6 And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.

 8 “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

"Sąd ostateczny," a 17th century Polish icon detailing the events of the book of Revelation on Wikipedia (click for full size)

It’s been a while since I’ve attempted some roughly hewn theology on this blog, and the book of Revelation is one of the most psychedelic ones out there, stiffly challenging sound interpretation. Nevertheless, here are five things I drew from this portion of scripture with key concepts bold-faced for emphasis. (And if none of the following makes a lick of sense or you’re just a more auditory processor, check out this message I delivered a couple weeks ago based on this text instead.)

From vs.1 – God’s very self will create “a new heaven and a new earth.” You and I can probably think of a lot of great reasons to fix up this planet given all of its problems, but why a new heaven? Because there will no longer be the same sort of qualitative separation between heaven and earth as is presently the case. A clue towards this reading is the absence of the sea. From the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Old Testament was written through the Hellenic context of the New Testament, the sea is most typically representative of chaos (cf. Daniel 7:2-8 and also this). For any biblically scholarly fact-checkers out there, this is probably one reason why Revelation 13 describes a “beast rising up out of the sea” that wars against the forces of good. But this beast is conquered along with everything else that opposes God in Revelation 19. That there is no sea in this vision indicates that our story ends with absolute harmony between earth and heaven, the dwelling place of humanity and the dwelling place of God.

From vs.2 – God will achieve this harmony between heaven and earth by overtly bridging the gap that presently exists between them. And we’re not talking about a miracle here or a vision there, nor are we discussing a sort of rollback to some idyllic, Eden-like state of nature alone. Rather, there will be a “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Among other things, this means there is a God-given dignity to life in the city now. Medieval Christian hermits and romantic transcendentalists made the same mistake; when we attempt to flee the corruption of society, we abandon the opportunity to function as its salt and light as God has called us to live and do (cf. Matt. 5:13-16). By departing from this mission of redemption between God and the world, we step out of the very stream of divine life that renews and sanctifies us, too. Ironically, it is a type of corruption to merely flee corruption without doing anything about it; it is stereotypically “worldly” in the pejorative sense of that term to merely abandon the world–we are called to engage it with God’s love. And while there is certainly a God-given dignity that obtains to other physical stations, there are fewer places on earth where one can as readily commit oneself to such loving engagement of others as robustly as in the city. As the seat of humanity’s political, commercial, and cultural vitality, its idolatry is particularly deprave, and its violence particularly dark (cf. Ez. 7:23 & 22:3). The city is but a shadow of what will ultimately come, but there is meaning and hope in that shadow, too. Indeed, while Genesis locates the Tree of Life in a garden predating any city, Revelation locates this Tree whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations” right in the center of the city God’s very self will establish in the end of days (cf. Gen. 2:9Rev. 22:1-2).

"La nouvelle Jérusalem," a 14th century French tapestry depicting the descent of the New Jerusalem from heaven to earth

From vs. 3-4 – This unified harmony between heaven and earth is not depicted by a bunch of people lazing around the clouds, plucking harps whilst bored to tranquilized oblivion. Rather, the upshot of God making everything new is this:God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” This makes protracted just and compassionate action possible. If we commit ourselves to declaring and living our lives according to this truth, we can do so optimistically but also soberly. We do not retreat to mere mysticism; we are not drunk on delusions but wide awake, gazing upon the shattered, filthy parts of our world as they truly exist right now with an unwavering eye, a kindled heart, and a readied hand. Until God’s very self effects that future state of harmony, suffering persists–and not just among people but throughout all nature. As Paul puts it in the New International Version’s treatment of Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” It is ultimately the activity of God’s very self that will remove all injustice, yet we are called to participate in this process now. We comfort the heartbroken courageously, and we do battle directly with death, neither purgatively aggrandizing pain nor timidly fleeing its grizzled visage. We are protected from disillusionment when we encounter severe difficulty because we have abandoned the merely illusory as a first principle predicated on the substantive reality of God’s ultimate home being with us, of God’s wiping our tears from our eyes to obliterate sorrow and crying and pain in the end.

From vs. 5 – The source of definitive commentary on all of this comes from God; it is God who commands the author of Revelation to “write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” When we embrace or communicate such a message to others, we do so confidently yet humbly; neither this event nor its proper description have come from us. We are scribes, we are messengers of the One who has spoken. We are not the Author of this story; it is news to us just as much as to anyone else.

From vs. 5-8 – God possesses generative and rectifying sovereignty over everything. The divinity of God envelops what is limited by time and space within externally unlimited eternity; as Acts 17:28 puts it, it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.” God’s commentary on new creation promises supreme restoration and justice from the basis of all-encompassing sovereignty. (“It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End.”) God freely welcomes and will slake the thirsts of any who so desire. (“To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.”) God will surely reward those who have righteously persevered–chiefly, through blessing wrought by dwelling in unity with God. (“All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.”) God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, imploring those bent by their evil ways to turn and live (cf. Ez. 18:23). God wants everyone to be saved from corruption, coming to a knowledge of such truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4); in fact, our present circumstances lacking perfected justice are a part of God’s plan to save as many as possible from perishing due to their wickedness (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). Nevertheless, there are those whose unrighteousness will staunchly remain despite God’s appeals, those who will persist in rejecting God’s ways to embrace corruption in its various forms. And by rejecting the source of all life, they will embrace their inevitable fate. (“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”)

To shift from a more devotional reading of this text to an applied reading, one that directs us towards specific action on the individual and collective levels, I learned the following by comparing this passage of scripture with other texts:

Tatian depicted composing his "Oratio ad Graecos" somewhere around 200 CE

1. We should base our individual identity on God’s creative renewal – What is most fundamental about our identity is not our collection of individual achievement, our ethnicity, our preferred forms of media consumption, our political affiliation, our right versus left brained-ness, our socioeconomic status, our relative level of physical beauty, all the stuff we accumulate, or anything else. As the Egyptian church leader, Clement of Alexandria, wrote circa 195 C.E., “We have no country on earth; therefore, we can disdain earthly possessions.” As the Assyrian writer, Tatian, put it around that same time, “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it; live to God.” Nothing else matters compared to the fact that God is still making all things new, including the very being and identity of we who are pursuing a relationship with this God by the salvation extended through Messiah Jesus. As Paul puts it in his letter to the early believers in Jesus living in the central Anatolian highlands of  modern-day Turkey, nothing about us counts for anything when compared to the fact of our “new creation” (cf. Gal. 6:11-15). No matter what people think about us or what happens to us externally, “our inner self is being renewed day by day” as we pursue life predicated on God’s transforming, revitalizing activity through Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16).

2. As a corollary to the above principle, detrimental activity clashes with our truest self, and that’s exactly why we should avoid it – We do not eschew unethical patterns of behavior merely because society might otherwise punish us, and we don’t fixate on our failures either. As that quote from Tatian implies above, we literally die to our old self while embracing the newness of our creation wrought by God. Romans 6:6 puts it this way, “For we know that our old self was crucified with Messiah so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Ephesians 4:22 underscores this same point, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” All  this means that immoral activity is the same thing as entanglement with an old self that is fading away; the righteous life  pursuing Jesus is liberation to the new creation we most truly are. Hebrews 12:1-2 puts it even more forcefully, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Watoto Children's Choir is comprised of youth who have lost one or both parents to the AIDS epidemic or to war. They sing songs about God's goodness blended with tribal rhythms and Ugandan dance.

3. Living a life predicated on God making all things new includes sharing this truth with others as a fundamental operating principle – New creation makes an appeal to others on the basis of its own being, a being that is itself directed back towards its source in God. The key scriptural metaphor describing this phenomenon is that of ambassadorship. Ambassadors do all sorts of things that are exactly like the people with whom they dwell; ambassadors pay rent, forge relationships, eat meals, bear children, follow sports teams, weep at opera houses, and spill coffee on the postal mail. But there is one gigantic difference; the entire purpose of ambassadors is to represent the party who has sent them above and beyond all the incidental stuff. 2 Cor. 5:17-20 puts it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” Not only does God literally effect new creation in those who pursue life “in Christ,” God draws those newly created people into the process of extending this grace of worldwide reconciliation. It is impossible to forego sharing this message of God making all things new with others yet still live according to that message. Failing to communicate God’s desired reconciliation is abdication of one’s ambassadorship by definition.

4. Our collective lives should leverage the communication of God making us new– We should celebrate that the dwelling of God already exists in a real but muted way among those of us who have been transformed by Jesus, even as it will one day exist in technicolor, high definition brilliance across the entire earth when God completes this activity of making all things new. Paul emphasizes this point by rebuking wayward followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth with the words, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Now, the Greek for the term here translated as “you” is ἐστε, which is a second person plural form of “to be”–in other words, Paul is saying something specifically about a group of believers and not just about one or two of them individually considered. In fact, Paul argues that this lived experience of the Spirit of God should be so powerfully present in this group of believers that even somebody who does not believe should be able to notice it; according to 1 Cor. 14:24-25, “unbelievers” encountering a gathering of people truly following Jesus should be so thoroughly convinced of their need for salvation from the encounter that they will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!'” Our primary text under consideration from the book of Revelation encourages us that one day, for certain and with totality everyone will witness God’s new creation. Yet, we have the opportunity to experience a dose of that reality together right now, and we should purposefully foster this to the end of amplifying our collective ambassadorship.

Print depicting Quintus Florens Tertullian (ca. 160-220 CE)

5. We accomplish the most powerful form of collective ambassadorship by living according to higher law, a pattern of behavior that is utterly foreign to this world right now – We are not just talking about rounding up a bunch of people who have experienced God’s new creation and then deploying them all over the place to verbally articulate a message. We are talking about the implicit witness of a concretely lived experience, one predicated on social norms that only make sense from the perspective of God making all things new at the end of days. This makes us nothing less than strangers and aliens here and now; as Tertullian of Carthage wrote to his fellow Christians in the volume, De Corona, “As for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven.” He was unpacking Paul’s point from Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Consequently, we exercise fidelity to one another, pursuing life in Messiah together at all costs in a way that fortifies our message of reconciliation. We exercise faith in God’s supremacy as Alpha and Omega rather than fear whatever lies behind that next bend in the road–we know that our collective origin and our global destination are anchored to the being and activity of the supreme Lord of all Creation. We are strategic, motivated, at peace, and thereby always proclaiming by our life together Whom we serve and why everyone else should, too. We frame everything from that posture of sober hope in God’s supreme, creative work, committing ourselves to living according to and actually speeding the coming of the very kingdom of God on earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). It is this concretely lived experience that constitutes a fundamental part of the most powerful form of our collective ambassadorship.

I’ve recently received some criticism about the length of the articles I post on this blog, and I plan on including a greater quantity of briefer posts in the future for those short on time or attention span. But the topic of this article is worth burning ten times as many words as the 4400+ that I will have spent by the time I wrap this thing up. And that is because there is literally nothing more important than meditating upon and responding to and celebrating this simple, profound truth developed within these various portions of scripture upon which I’ve reflected to unpack just what it means that God is making all things new.

My life swiftly drifts off-course when I lose sight of this, and I’m alternatively too hard on myself or too flippant. On the one hand, I can become discouraged when I fail to achieve the things that I want, and I repeat the same, stupid mistakes that I already know won’t deliver specifically because of my fatigue and irritation. On the other hand, I can fling my weight around boorishly, inadvertently hurting other people as I traipse along my merry way without reference to who God is and what God is doing in me and throughout the world. Maybe I struggle with this sort of thing more than most; I lack a trustworthy means of discerning that. But even if you are reading this post right now without any of the tension I’ve shared such that there is subjectively less at stake for you in considering the points I’ve mentioned, I hope that you will still take a chance on experiencing and celebrating and committing yourself to the reality I’ll never have enough words to fully describe.

Josefina de Vasconcellos' "Statue of Reconciliation" at Coventry Cathedral, U.K.

God wants to reconcile you and me to God’s self, every day more deeply and yet always afresh. God doesn’t want to merely forgive you for that one time you stole the candy from the drugstore or that other time you cheated on your taxes or screwed your buddy’s crush or talked crap behind that one girl’s back. God wants to redeem you from a death of which you aren’t even fully cognizant towards a life categorically different and more substantial than anything you or I have ever encountered–repetitively, day after day, moment by moment. And God doesn’t want to just stop there; God wants to draw us into this very process of expanding wholeness and well being throughout the world, of sharing this message even as we live it with other people moving from shadow to substance, from decrepit adolescence to youthful maturity. God wants to knit you together in relationship with others resisting a world marked by decay and rebellion that will one day be overturned and yet somehow redeemed by an apocalyptic, divine fiat of compassion and justice perfectly balanced. Nothing you or I have done or seen or known up until now is like this or more important than it.

So, what does this mean for you today? How does this affect your work, your family, the friendships you’re forging, and the goals you’re setting? What does this mean for the way you manage your finances, for the use of your time, or for the sorts of things you talk about and meditate on? What parts of your life already reflect these truths pretty clearly, and what parts sharply clash with them? Moreover, what would it look like for you and me to take these truth more seriously but also more joyfully, as leap-off points for action rather than mere nodes of reflection? What aspirations may emerge and what habits or attitudes will need to be put to rest? What might it mean for you, just this day or even just for the next couple hours to explore this way of life more fundamentally? In what intentionally embraced manner can this be, right now for you, more “trustworthy and true”?

God is making all things new.

  • I utilized David Bercot’s summary of multiple points from The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down for quick reference to the thought of various Ante-Nicene fathers in this article on scrollpublishing.com while writing this post.
  • Many thanks also to the hosts of the five best parties I ever attended on a New Year’s Eve in a row: Micah and Lauren McLellan, Michael and Christine Evans, Dana Chen, Lauren Parton, Jake VanKersen, Lizzy Hill, Katie Nelson, Sarah Joy Mikolajczyk, Kevin Harris, and Jenifer Dodsworth–you people are amazing.
  • I would not have written this article if I had I not been blessed with the opportunity to preach about its subject matter on New Year’s Day at the congregation where I was raised and came to faith in Messiah, namely, Jesus People Covenant Church of Uptown, Chicago, and this would not have been possible apart from the invitation of Rev. Neil Taylor and Rev. Thomas Cameron, to whom I am more deeply indebted than just about anyone else on earth for literally years of wise counsel. My bosom buddy, Nathan Cameron, ran the PowerPoint making the message optimally comprehensible given how pooped most people are the morning of New Year’s Day.
  • These songs by Skrillex, Broken Social SceneThe Who, and Monchy Y Alexandra helped motivate me to finish this post. Check ’em out if you have flash.

What Hanukkah Means to Us

"Hanukkah Candles" from 4to40.com

This post talks about why Hanukkah is so great, why Jewish people like me who are strongly connected with the Church love the Festival of Lights, and how anybody interested in the connections shared between Christianity and Judaism detailed in the New Testament can be enriched by observing this holiday. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the easiest, most biblically rooted ways to recover more of that spiritual, community-located “reason for the season” goodness that can be overwhelmed by the rampant, consumerist commercialism surrounding Christmas in the West. (Yikes! Where did that come from?) But first, a personal admission:

I was raised in a household with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. In the past, this arrangement would have been rare and suspect among American Jewry, but times have changed. According to the landmark National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 helpfully summarized by Liza Katz in her About.com article on Jewish intermarriage, the incidence of interfaith households in the Jewish community has risen nearly 400% over the last thirty years in the States. Whereas roughly one out of every ten Jews got married and raised a family with a non-Jewish spouse when my father was growing up, about half of all Jews make this decision today in America.

A substantial reason for this growth in interfaith marriage among Jewish people is the trend towards secularization and cultural assimilation prevalent amidst the religious and ethnic community in the States. That was certainly true of my father’s side of the family, such that I probably would not have grown up with much exposure to Hanukkah at all if it had not been for the deep interest in the holiday that my non-Jewish mother possessed and wanted to impart to her children. (So, for any of you pure-as-the-driven-snow Jewish types smirking at the mention of my “shiksa” mom, back your farkocktah attitude down or I will love and tolerate the shtik out of you.)

See, Hanukkah is actually a pretty minor holiday by rabbinical standards. In fact, it is the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas that has yielded a greater degree of attention in contemporary society to the festival than has been the case in the past. Nowadays, you can actually purchase books like Daniel Novack’s My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story, pick up a “Hanukkah tree topper” for your…er…Hanukkah bush, and satisfy your sweet tooth with blue and white, Hanukkah-themed candy canes from the comfort of your web browser today. That’s how much cultural amalgamation has occurred due to the secularization of the Jewish community when it comes to this holiday.

Yes, you can purchase "Hanukkah candy canes" online...

Consequently, my family did not do the greatest job celebrating Hanukkah when I was growing up. We put forth a valiant effort, but we basically grabbed a bunch of different sources and mushed them altogether to form our own celebration that bore only a vague resemblance to the real thing. But, man, am I ever grateful for this. Even this halting, not exactly kosher way of celebrating the holiday helped to keep that little Hanukkah flame lit in my heart, and when I approached adulthood, I decided to take an honest crack at observing the holiday in closer harmony with what scripture and Jewish tradition have to say about it as a result.

I’ll never forget the first time I celebrated all eight nights of Hanukkah. I was dirt poor, living in Uptown, Chicago. My experience lacked virtually every single trapping typically associated with the holiday–no siddur, no menorah, no dreidel, no supportive community of fellow Jews, no gelt or latkes or anything. I looked all the prayers up online and printed them off so I could recite them without distraction. I fashioned my own menorah from cardboard and tea lights, and I celebrated the entire holiday in quiet solitude with God.

It was the single most spiritually moving thing I did that year. I wept every time I lit those candles and stumbled through those prayers. When you’re doing Hanukkah right, night falls partway through the process. So, the only thing illuminating my flat were tiny flames dancing above a couple globs of liquid paraffin, reminding me of how precious God’s provision had been for the Jewish people as they struggled with a return from exile and a perpetual threat of annihilation, when the Lord worked a miracle between the silence of the prophets and the birth of my Messiah. It was as if the bits and pieces of my identity as a fractionally Jewish follower of Jesus were being knit together again every evening that I prayed those prayers, as if the Jewishness and the Jesus-ness of my spirit that my family had neglected until my father’s generation were finally beginning to grow again after decades of atrophy.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's engraving of Judah Maccabee in "Die Bibel in Bildern" (1860)

Although I knew the gist of the story of Hanukkah before then, I had never read the passages in the apocrypha like 1 Maccabees 4 that described the events upon which the holiday is based. I knew that about 150 years before Jesus was born, the Jewish people lead by Judah Maccabee had ousted a powerful group of invaders lead by Antiochus IV, a Seleucid ruler who sacked Jerusalem, erected an altar to Zeus right smack in the middle of the temple, banned circumcision, and ordered ritually unclean animals like pigs to be sacrificed in the temple on the altar he built according to the Jewish historian, Josephus. But I did not realize that it was the Talmud–a collection of rabbinic discussions about Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs, and history forming the doctrinal foundation of mainstream Judaism–that described the specific miracle most Jews associate with Hanukkah today, i.e. God’s enabling the temple’s lamp stand to burn for longer than it should have given the shortage of oil in those days after the Jews purified and rededicated the temple to the Lord following the expulsion of the Seleucid invaders. Now, I got to learn about all that stuff on the very days in the Jewish calendar when they occurred, recovering and reinforcing their memory while praying the same prayers Jews all over the world recite to remind themselves of God’s protection and provision in times of trouble.

I already knew that Jesus celebrated various biblical festivals mentioned in the Old Testament, but Hanukkah occurred after the codification of the first covenant’s canon. Consequently, I did not know that John 10 specifically records Christ’s celebration of Hanukkah, calling it “the Feast of Dedication” in most English translations of the Bible. As a result, I had completely missed the significance of many of the specific claims of scripture in their historical and cultural context orbiting this holiday. For example, Jesus shares a debate with some other Jewish teachers during the festival at a particular area of the temple called Solomon’s Porch or Solomon’s Colonnade. This was not built by Solomon during the days of the first temple roughly 950 years before Jesus walked the earth. Instead, this structure was most likely developed as an expansion of the second temple built by the Jews after they returned from exile, i.e. a part of the temple whose dedication back in the days of Judah Maccabee was the basis of the celebration of the Festival of Lights in the first place.

Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV. Reverse side pictured on the right includes the Greek inscription, "ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ," which translates to "Basileus Antiochus, God Manifest, Bearer of Victory." Retrieved from wikipedia.

And since that festival specifically commemorated the ousting of Antiochus IV, it was not until I learned a bit more about the guy that I understood how brazen Jesus’s words in John 10 must have seemed. Not only was Antiochus IV a pretty bad dude in general, he was so self-absorbed that he broke with his own culture’s traditions to apply the term “Epiphanes” (Gk. “God made manifest”) to himself. The guy was so crazy that some of his contemporaries lampooned his assertions of divinity with their own play-on-words nickname, “Epimanes” (Gk. “the mad one”). So, when Jesus says that he and the Father “are one” in John 10:22-33 while accepting the title of Messiah, a Hebrew term meaning “the anointed one” of God, he was doing that at the exact time of the year when Jews celebrate the ousting of Antiochus IV–a murderous invader who made the same sorts of claims to divinity. That’s why the other Jews accuse Jesus of blasphemy, of which he would have absolutely been guilty unless he was actually telling the truth. That’s why everybody got so upset that they tried to literally stone Jesus to death. Similarly, when Jesus claims in John 10:34-36 that God the Father had sanctified (i.e. dedicated and made holy and set apart) him and sent him into the world, Christ was drawing a parallel between himself and the very temple upon which he was standing during the specific holiday commemorating that temple’s purification and rededication by the Jewish people.

It was like Jesus was saying, “I am the true, Divine Sovereign this Antiochus IV charlatan falsely claimed to be. In my own body, I am making God known to you because the Father and I are One, and he has set me apart and dedicated me just as our ancestors did to this temple, whose glory will inevitably fade now that the real thing is standing right here before you.” No wonder everybody tripped out at Jesus’s words; my own mind is still blown by all of this. I can no longer read passages about Jesus being the light of the world all over the rest of the gospel according to John–such as John 1:1-18, John 3:16-21, John 8:12, and John 9:5without  thinking of Hanukkah. It finally clicked for me a few years ago how all this stuff was not just a useful metaphor about Jesus’s activity or being in general but a hint towards a specific, mystical union of concrete reality and symbol running through Israel’s history and scripture right up to Jesus’s birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. All this was just one more example of how God’s method of protection and love for the Jewish people was a shadow and a sign of the full reality demonstrated in Messiah as Hebrews 10:1-18 puts it, of how Jesus is the telos–i.e. the consummation or the appointed fulfillment–of the Mosaic Law as Romans 10:4 describes the matter.

How NOT to celebrate Christ's birth according to some witty jokester at someecards.com

Jesus was not just celebrating Hanukkah in John 10, he was illustrating his fulfillment of it. And one of the best ways to let these truths structure my life, to let them truly sink in and form the basis of the way I live in the day to day, is to continue to celebrate them each year during the Festival of Lights, just as Christ and his disciples did but also with the knowledge of Jesus’s fulfillment of the holiday in his person. Thankfully, American culture hasn’t found a way to really leverage Hanukkah for much commercial gain at present. And this means that we don’t have to put up with wave upon wave of Hanukkah-based advertisements, initially endearing but utterly irritating songs on Lite FM, snarky allegations of the pagan underpinnings of the holiday, or kvetching by people distraught about how God has been stripped out of Hanukkah by all those secularists whom we few and faithful must combat for Judah Maccabee’s sake or something.

Even if you don’t posses a Jewish background, there is this awesome, ninja-like move you can make by celebrating Hanukkah if you want to transcend and in a sense redeem the cultural baggage surrounding the Christmas season thanks to the ways the dates usually work out each year. Do you have any idea how freaking cool it is to be able to celebrate Advent throughout the whole month of December, then drop some Hanukkah action right in the middle of it for a whole week? And when things really line up like they will this year, you might even get to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day right in the middle of Hanukkah. It’s like circles within circles, man… And nothing eclipses concerns about the commercialization of or pagan elements running through Christmas quite like throwing down some Judaica, with traditions and prayers and ways of thanking and worshiping God that predate Jesus’s birth by over a century comprising a holiday that he himself celebrated–during the specific part of the year and in many of the particular ways that he and his followers celebrated it. (You know, unlike Christmas, which I also love.) And if you do possess a Jewish background, I probably don’t have to explain to you how great it is to dig deeper into the roots of this holiday rather than let goofy tchotchke on Amazon.com or Stephen Colbert vs. John Stewart’s “Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?” define your experience.

Yours truly at the Christkindlemarkt with gigantic menorah, compliments of the Lubavitcher's of Chicago

This is what Hanukkah means to Jewish followers of Jesus like me. We are people whom God has miraculously preserved despite our lack of merit and mutt-like pedigree by calling us to himself through the light of Jesus and making us whole again–not just with a growth of integrity in our identity as followers of our Jewish Messiah but as a categorically new people unified with our non-Jewish brothers and sisters through our Savior’s body, as Ephesians 2 puts it. Hanukkah is one of the reasons why I continue to work for that unification to this day, one of the ways I try to follow Jesus’s example by presenting my own body as a “living sacrifice” to God as Romans 12:1-2 puts it rather than go my own way as did generations of my father’s side of the family in their bit-by-bit abandonment of their traditions and relationship with the Living Lord of All. There are few things that are so simultaneously humbling and yet motivating, so challenging and yet rewarding.

If any of this resonates with you, here are some practical tips about exploring Hanukkah this year. We’ll be celebrating the holiday this time around from sundown of Tuesday, December 20 to nightfall of Wednesday, December 28th, which corresponds to the 25th of Kislev to the 3rd of Tevet of the Jewish calendar:

  • Read up on your Hanukkah basics – I mentioned most of this already, but a good place to start is  1 Maccabees 4section 34 of the first chapter of Josephus’ Jewish Wars, and the story of Hanukkah summarized by wikipedia or Judaism 101.
  • Explore Jesus’s celebration of the holiday – Just check out John 10:22-42 and scope out this article by Gordon Franz on the topic.
  • Join some other folks celebrating the festival – If you’re in the Chicago area, feel free to connect with the posse meeting at my place by checking out the open facebook event. If that’s not possible, consider visiting one of the Messianic Jewish congregations or ministries all over the world, such as those listed on the UMJC’s database or the IAMCS’s database.
  • Hook yourself up with some Hanukkah gear and prayer resources – Maybe you want to take a crack at this Hanukkah stuff on your own, much as I did several years ago. The key prayers before you light the candles are listed here, and the prayer after you light the candles is here. If you don’t want to slap together your own hick accouterments like I did back in the day, you can pick up a legit menorah and some candles with expedited shipping from Amazon.com just in time for Tuesday night. Plus, that Judaism 101 link mentioned above includes a number of songs and recipes and games traditionally associated with Hanukkah.
  • Take your time – Hanukkah provides a great opportunity to put the breaks on busyness and re-calibrate your focus on God. Don’t rush your observance of the holiday; carve out the time to let the Lord work in and through your heart as you explore this way of celebrating God’s protection and provision in this place and time, just as God did in days of old at this season.

Baruch HaShem…

How Rick Perry Miraculously United America

Jackie Chan meme, you are so helpful!

This past Wednesday, an acquaintance of mine pursuing a Manhattan-based career in choreography posted a facebook status update link to Rick Perry’s now infamous clunker of a YouTube campaign clip, “Strong.” The link was preceded by my friend’s expression of total exasperation, a couple disjointed words trailing off in an ellipses indicating that unique variety of dumbstruck, cognitive dissonance that the Jackie Chan meme adjacent to this paragraph can alone properly express. And while I had not been very interested in Perry’s candidacy up to that point, I valued the opinion of my pal in New York enough to view that clip.

I should mention that I had just concluded a modestly pointed yet vastly rewarding discussion with about a half a dozen folks from the church I am privileged to serve on the topic of Jesus’s prophetic role as depicted in biblical texts like Hebrews 1:1-4. Perhaps I felt inspired by that investigation to speak some truth to power myself, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as that saying by Finley Peter Dunne goes. Perhaps I was motivated to provide a counterexample to what looked like a bizarre amalgamation of something quietly hateful and deceitfully Christian in Perry’s message for the benefit of my friend and whoever else might click through that link he posted. Perhaps I was just really ticked off from the whiplash I suffered by plummeting from the heights of mutually edifying, respectful conversation with friends to the depths of Perry’s tortured campaign dreck. In any case, I just had to respond.

Now, if you’re one of the few people who has not yet viewed this clip in question, please do so now and then read onward; it pains me to even summarize its content any more than I do in passing below. And in case some of the things Perry said in that clip positively resonate with you, in case you sometimes feel that society is waging war against your faith or your ideals for our culture as a whole, please bear with me until the end. (The same thing goes for those of you who are sick of Perry and his video clip.) Aside from a few clarifications accommodating for the shift in context from a more personal facebook comment thread to a more general blog post, here is what I wrote three days ago and stand by this morning:

As a pastor actively serving the men and women of Chicago in some way, shape, or form for years on end, I most assuredly do not approve of Rick Perry’s message. Pitting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (henceforth, DADT) against the prohibition of kids openly celebrating Christmas or praying in public schools merely plays to the base Perry hopes to strengthen at the cost of polarizing that base with respect to everyone else. The tired trope of a “liberal attack on our religious heritage” engenders not just an “us vs. them” mentality, it also seeks to increase the incidence of reactionary behavior among whoever qualifies as an “us.” And it seeks to do both of these things for the sake of gaining political power.

Lorenzo Lotto, "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" (ca. 1529)

This strikes a deep chord within my soul, because I am not that far from the group of people to whom Perry’s message was most directly focused given my faith in Jesus as Messiah. And on the basis of that message Perry promoted, I am supposed to believe with all the other huddled masses of “us” that there is some group of nameless antagonists, a “them” epitomized in Obama against whom Perry will heroically provide defense. But I see absolutely nothing of Jesus in what Perry has said in this clip, and I wonder how long he will continue to obfuscate the fact that it was the outcast, the marginalized, and the sinners with whom Christ chose to dwell yet the religiously established colluding with the politically powerful who sought most fervently to put him to death.

Moreover, why should anybody care about some archaic religious heritage constructed out of the pastiche of America’s history in the first place? Why is that revision of our past that Perry selects–a revision that all-too-conveniently neglects the litany of genocide and injustice interwoven with the more commendable aspects of our story–the one we should arbitrarily claim to “matter” today? Isn’t all of it important since, well, all of it actually happened? Moreover, the end result of that pseudo-homogeneous religious heritage would be our present context, right? So, if we don’t like the fruit of our past decisions, what sense is there in an attempted return to its more nascent form? To repeat the whole process all over again because we cannot think of any better way to move towards a categorically new and more promising future?

The congregation I serve in Chicago was challenged several years ago to develop a statement of its view of sexuality, its understanding of God’s desires and designs for our lives in their sexual dimensions. Although this occurred before my time ministering with the women and men of First Free Church, I love the way that the document resulting from this endeavor emphasizes a few key facts that are central to an orthodox, Christian worldview elevating the conversation of sexuality above a mere list of do’s and dont’s. And while there is much to discuss about sexuality, suffice it to say here that I share the conviction expressed by the statement my fellow church leaders drafted regarding the fact that human sexuality is a good and purposeful thing, that God’s very self came up with the idea of sexual intimacy in the first place. As Creator and Lord of all, God possesses the right to make claims on our sexuality, and following God’s ways is what is best for us even when it is difficult or unpopular. With the majority of the Church through time, the rest of my current congregation’s leadership and I believe that God’s intent for the active expression of sexual intimacy is within the context of heterosexual marriage or else singleness in chastity. As an unmarried man with a relentless hunger to experience the joy and, yes, also the challenges that come with married life, those claims I just mentioned are hard. For me personally. (Jesus, help me!) But they are sound; they are good.

Photo taken by Mark Wilson / Getty Images of Iraq War Army Veteran, Lt. Dan Choi, cleaning the grave of Vietnam War Veteran, Sgt. Leonard Matlovich. Both were discharged from the military for being gay under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Hence, one might not expect to find that I am supportive of the repeal of DADT. Why would I come to that conclusion despite all of the above? Because losing DADT means that both the heteronormative and the LGBT military community can be honest and open about the facts rather than advised to live a lie by omission of detail. Similarly, I appreciate the removal of prayers from public schools in the sense where this actually has occurred, viz. where students are no longer forced to actively pray or sit through prayers conducted by their teachers and school administration, because it enables our society to be more open and honest about our actual, pluralistic composition. We are people with enough similarity to have a shot at coping with our differences rather than pretending they don’t exist or leveraging those of us in one group to toe the line of another group without sufficient warrant. In other words, there is a profound benefit to this sort of pluralism, one that does not seek to blur all our distinctions or overcome them by fiat but to realistically deal with them in their pointedness and messiness, eschewing scripted, sitcom-like plot lines where voiced disagreement with another’s way of life is tantamount to bigotry on the one hand and the ideological equivalent of tyranny on the other hand.

I like being able to speak openly about my faith in Jesus in this context, about the merits of the claims that my Messiah makes upon my life and the lives of others without getting pat, hollow, responses of pseudo-agreement from people following some utterly sickening twist of civic virtue neutered of all reference to truth. I would much rather share a difficult relationship with someone who completely disagreed with me–in truth–rather than a vacuous relationship with somebody who had jettisoned any robust sense of their own convictions for whatever it is they are “supposed” to think or do. If Perry means to protect America’s religious heritage by shutting up the sorts of people who sharply disagree with me, then he is not just attempting to abuse them, he is also attempted to rob me of one of the most precious opportunities I have to share my faith. And if the substance upon which my faith is itself founded is not sufficiently strong to survive those turbulent waters of dialog and disagreement (especially without Perry’s protection), then there is no possible way that the foundation of my faith came from the Almighty God who spoke the universe into existence and in whom all things live and move and have their being.

Sweet print I found online depicting some of the founding fathers of America, not all of whom were Christians like Rick Perry.

Sure, I know just as well as anybody with a modest command of history that many of the founders of American society were religious, but several of them were not all that exemplary by that day’s standards. And even those who were religious certainly were not all cut from the same cloth: Penn was Quaker, Washington was Anglican, Jefferson was a humanist deist, and Franklin was a Christian one of Puritan heritage. But Perry’s political gerrymandering not only obscures this fact and the others I mentioned above, it neglects the far more impactful point on which I’ll conclude this diatribe.

There is nothing–absolutely nothing–meritorious about leveraging a spirit of division, exclusion, reactionism, and false antagonism on Perry’s premises (even if they weren’t so thoroughgoingly specious) when the precious opportunity to dignify, embrace, and redemptively engage one another while we labor to create a categorically better future lies in wait. That latter project will be difficult and undoubtedly marked by turns of dispute and misunderstanding as much as agreement and co-laboring. But at least it is truthful. At least it is possible. At least it is more like the Christ that Perry purports to worship than the politically charged religiosity that crucified Jesus over the very sorts of ideas Perry so mistakenly aggrandizes to everyone’s hurt. Not just the hurt of “them” gays and lesbians and Obama-lovers so callously treated as foils in this God forsaken clip but the hurt of whoever the “us” was supposed to be. And my own hurt, too.

Well, I wasn’t too sure how anybody would respond to my unsolicited, theo-political tirade, but the first comment it received was “BRAVO SIR!” Then somebody posted a different clip of Hilary Clinton speaking at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to the end that “gay rights are human rights” on the very same day that the Perry clip was uploaded to YouTube. Then somebody else asked me if I was planning to run for office since, evidently, they were inclined to vote for me. And then another person posted a link to an image that had swiftly flown up the ranks of websites like reddit.com showing that Perry wore a jacket in his campaign clip that looked a whole lot like that of the late Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain–working title “can’t make this $#!% up.”

Rick Perry is wearing Heath Ledger's jacket from Brokeback Mountain. You can't explain that!

Then somebody else argued that Rick Perry “is bigot”–not a bigot but is bigot. Amber Macarthur argued a similar point the following day in her article with The Globe and Mail, saying that Perry’s clip could be considered “hate speech” leading to a take down from YouTube given a sufficient number of users flagging it as such. Since I personally believe that just about everybody probably holds some bigoted views about something, this aspect of the clip was not the most frustrating part of the matter. Rather, it was Perry’s decision to leverage the polarizing nature of his views to gain support, i.e. at the expeense of driving more deeply the fractures that already exist in our society. I will admit that I found Perry’s views offensive and not just illogical. On a personal level, I bristled at the sheer velocity with which he swept a declaration about not being ashamed to admit that he is a Christian right into trying to fortify a claim that “there is something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” It would be too much of a sidetrack to articulate how frustrating it is to watch people like Perry reinforce again and again that stereotype that Christians are a bunch of moronic, homophobic haters–and especially to know that Perry is probably acting this way because he really believes it is for the best. But on the level of evaluating his aspirations for statesmanship, it is his calculated use of everything comprising that wild package of campaign ad to gain political strength specifically through polarizing activity that I found most disturbing of all.

And that is why I was pleasantly surprised at what happened next, for, lo and behold, Rick Perry has miraculously unified America. Namely, through prompting a virtually unanimous, negative response to Rick Perry’s “Strong.” Within roughly one full day after the clip was posted by Perry’s camp, Chicagoan film critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert, tweeted, “Answer to Rick Perry’s confusion: We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Epic YouTube fail,” including a link to Garance Franke-Ruta’s article in The Atlantic analyzing the overwhelmingly negative, high-volume response the campaign commercial was receiving from virtually every front. All sorts of people began uploading parody videos satirizing the matter, including nationally established groups like Chicago’s Second City Network,  rising “YouTube famous” acts like The Comedy Couple, maybe-not-so-famous-but-quite-prolific atheists like James Kotecki, and the one I personally found most hilarious, Conservative Jewish rabbi, Jason Miller.

Garance Franke-Ruta, politics editor of The Atlantic online who was one of the first to catch the meteoric fall of Perry's "Strong."

Will Ferrel’s “Funny or Die” website put together a more surprisingly tasteful response than expected, depicting a buddy-buddy version of Jesus Christ correcting Perry’s gaffes. Memes began to fly all over the place, including a Harry Potter homage to the 2012 campaign of “Lord Perrymort,” alleging that you “do not need to be a Pureblood to know there is something wrong with the Wizarding World when Mudbloods can live among the worthy as equals, but our own children cannot openly practise the Dark Arts.” Roughly 72 hours after Perry’s “Strong” was posted to YouTube, it has garnered over 3 million views with a 98% disapproval rating, a feat so momentous that apparently everybody from The Huffington Post to Salon.com to local television affiliates like Wilmington, NC’s channel 6 News all felt compelled to report on the matter.

I don’t want to treat the extremely problematic aspects of what Perry said in those fateful, thirty seconds with too much levity. His perspective is dangerous. It bears a family resemblance to the specific mechanism that crucified Jesus, and it smacks of the very sort of thing that is driving so many people away from Christ’s Church of which I am a part and continue to serve. This lousy ad has upset a lot of people I love, not just ones who feel personally targeted but others who feel misrepresented, not to mention still others who are sincerely concerned about some of the fears upon which Perry played to his own political ends.

But all this has quite thankfully resulted in something I never expected when I first viewed that clip after my buddy posted it. It has brought some of us–in fact, quite a lot of us–closer together now than we were before. And in so doing, it has shown us that this is possible not just in spite of but specifically by the agency of what was selfishly intended to drive us apart. Are you ready to help build that future?

Working Hard Is Not Enough – 33rd Birthday Reflection no.2

“Sisyphus” by Interesni Kazki, painted on a building in Ekaterinburg, Russia

I usually update this blog around once a week, but I’ve been preoccupied with some exciting new ministry efforts coupled with increased preaching duties orbiting Thanksgiving over the past month or so. Incidentally, this year’s holiday reminded me yet again of the vast quantity of things for which I have to be grateful, especially my family, whose affection I do not remotely deserve. Not only did my sister take a break from her recording project in Nashville to visit with everyone else, not only did my mother single-handedly prepare the most scrumptious meal I’ve tasted all year, not only did my dad randomly install a new hard drive on my computer twice the size of my old one, they did all this purely because they love me without any pressure to reciprocate. And even though I did express my love back to them (and they probably figured that I would), the whole scene reminded me once again of how amazing freely given love is and how thankfulness prepares a place for its flourishing.

I may write more about the subject of gratitude in the near future, but the topic of this post is a bit different. In the middle of all those cool ministry pursuits and family loving this past month, I also got the chance to coach several folks slogging through some extremely frustrating struggles in their lives–job prospects gone south, precious relationships decaying beyond ostensible repair, and a lot of confusion about how to even begin to sensibly chart a course for the future. I cannot share these people’s stories here in detail without breaching confidentiality, but the experience reinforced my conviction about the main point I want to share here, a lesson I learned the hard way over the past year about what lies at heart of much of our failure to achieve the sorts of things we really want for the endeavors that matter to us the most.

Now, if you are a total slacker reading this because you think it will validate your laziness, this post will disappoint you. On the other hand, if you are someone who has ever felt frustrated when your erstwhile, conscientious efforts have gone unrewarded–someone who has put their nose to the grindstone time and again with little to show for it save a face full of sparks–this article is for you. And if you are frequently tempted to slack off because working hard all the time with mediocre results exhausts you, the following could be one of the most important things you read all week. Sectional links for ease of navigation, just like last time:

§ 1. The threshold of sufficient reward
§ 2. The principle formally expressed
§ 3. Why we constantly miss this lesson
§ 4. The Divine connection
§ 5. Concluding, personal notes

This must be the world's most endearing image of camel online (:

§ 1. The threshold of sufficient reward – In my last post in this series, I tried to illustrate how a fine line separates the utterly depressing from the categorically awesome, and I argued that we should relentlessly pursue the latter as if our lives depended on it (because they actually do). The focus of this article is intimately connected with the actualization of that principle on a pragmatic level. If we don’t know what constitutes a categorically awesome object of pursuit, we will miss valuable opportunities time and again–often winding up, well, utterly depressed. But anybody who has ever successfully identified such a truly worthwhile endeavor knows that victory in that skirmish is only one part of the much greater battle. There’s the challenge of the actual pursuit itself, which is is where most of us really struggle. And while a camel can outlast a horse in the desert, the former still needs water to keep going at some point. Similarly, even the most tenacious and discerning among us need concrete, positive reinforcement that the things and people and projects to which we have committed our time and effort really are worth the cost of investment, even when we are pretty sure that this is the case in theory.

Garnering such positive reinforcement is easy by definition when the course of action we select is immediately, satisfyingly rewarding. But not much of life is like that. Indeed, a number of the most important, good decisions we make do not yield immediately satisfying results. And complications can arise in the middle of a given endeavor just as much as they may at the beginning. How many promising opportunities have you watched people decline because risking experimentation seemed to cost too much to them? We will stick with a given state of affairs, even one where we are dissatisfied and uncomfortable, if the alternatives do not seem like they will yield a substantially better outcome balancing out the potential cost. And even if we do embark on some experiment because the probable results seem worthwhile enough to warrant the risk, we will not remain robustly committed to the matter for very long if our efforts become too disconnected from a palpably experienced reward.

It is normal not to try something novel unless it promises a better outcome than the way we have already chosen. It is difficult to delay gratification when a newly selected path forward does not deliver on its promises as swiftly as we hope. But it is pitiful when we repeatedly do the same, inadvisable things over and over again that yield the same, lousy results–especially when we don’t have a clue about how to achieve anything better. Nevertheless, we make these sorts of decisions often, and we do so in a multitude of extremely costly ways.

Silent film artist, Buster Keaton, illustrating the ignominy of life behind bars

For example, the United States Department of Justice conducted a study across fifteen different states finding that 67.5% of prisoners released after being convicted of felonies were rearrested within three years. That is not just an indictment of our criminal justice system’s inability to achieve restoration, as I’ve previously alluded in my analysis of Troy Davis’s plight. That ridiculously high rate of recidivism is also a painfully accurate illustration of humanity’s difficulty breaking cycles of poor behavior with obviously severe ramifications. In fact, the 2003 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics reports that the rate of repeat felony climbed as high as 75% and above for those convicted of stealing personal property or possessing / selling stolen goods, with nearly 80% rate of repeat offense for those arrested for auto theft. Evidently, we’ll take a flying leap after carrots that we already know are forbidden and demonstrably out of reach provided they look juicy enough.

You might chalk that sort of behavior up to a symptom of delinquency, but law abiding citizens do the same sorts of things in their relationships, their jobs, and in setting the courses for their respective futures. We far too often wind up in the same sorts of vacuous friendships and romances, pouring our hearts into what is not built to last or else cutting our loses and screwing whomever we can to get a mere taste of what we really want despite the lack of substance. Similarly, many of us habitually sabotage our own careers. If we stay employed, we tend to do so in jobs that we do not enjoy working for people who do not understand us. A 2004 study conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc. found that roughly 55% of employees across America are unsatisfied with their jobs, and they are working for bosses who think that twice as many of them are “extremely satisfied” with their situation than is actually the case according to a 2009 study conducted by salary.com.

Instead of taking an honest look at why we keep winding up in these situations, we tend to blame others. And if we do accept responsibility for our circumstances, most of us apparently do not know how to qualitatively change matters in the final analysis. Why?

§ 2. The principle formally expressed – For those of us who are not chronic slackers, the source of this problem is not an obvious character flaw or a socially reinforced vice. In fact, many of us suffer from a virtue gone awry, and that is the pervasive misbelief that hard work is enough.

This quote by Einstein pretty much speaks for itself...

Many of us are convinced despite strong evidence to the contrary that if we just keep plugging away at this lackluster gig or that disappointing relationship, things will get better by sheer force of effort. And so we do just that, we keep committing our time and energy until we accrue a sufficiently large quantity of poor results such that the thing occupying our attention falls apart of its own accord or frustrates us to the point that we bail to a different field of endeavor. Where we usually repeat the same, ineffective behavior predicated on the truism that working and working and working will get us what is good all by itself.

And those of us who luck out, who achieve a better state of affairs despite living according to this mistaken approach gild that freaking carrot for the rest of us such that we keep trying in vain. In contrast, here is the tough but ultimately liberating truth I learned this year:

33rd Birthday Lesson No.2 – Working hard is not enough. In the long run, you will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for your effort alone.

§ 3. Why we constantly miss this lesson – If this principle sounds counter-intuitive, let it sink in for just moment. Most of the time, you will not get what you want simply by working hard. Now, the capacity to work hard is itself immensely important. And since it is difficult to build the endurance necessary to work hard along with the the diligence to apply ourselves time and again, a lot of us are distracted from the truth that fortifying these character traits in no way guarantees success all by itself.

Thus, we tend to attribute an inability to achieve a certain goal to an insufficient quantity of effort, or else we conclude that the desired outcome just was not in the cards for us this time around. Unfortunately, many of us layer these interpretations of our lives with a sort of creeping, statistical fallacy, one where we believe that continuing to work hard somehow makes us progressively more worthy to encounter success. And while this may be true in one sense, we take things a step further to presume that we not only deserve success in our endeavors but that we will actually be rewarded with it by some external guarantor–the universe, a boss, God, our colleagues or clientele–some day in the future.

As a result, we possess a dangerously crude understanding of what our work is in the first place. Far wiser minds than mine have reflected on this matter for centuries, but I am going to define work here as “any effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Now, that’s a pretty general definition, but it immediately illustrates why efficiency is so great: Achieving more productivity for less effort is the bottom line of what everybody means when they say it is better to work smarter than harder.

Framed this way, work is a somewhat different concept than employment, which I could define as “the self-determined state of exchanging work for some form of compensation.” That compound word “self-determined” helps us draw a line between employment and slavery, in that people who are enslaved may very well be compensated for their labor, but they have this arrangement thrust upon them rather than enjoying the opportunity to chose or reject it with some measure of autonomy.

Hilarious scene from Mike Judge's "Office Space"

Our distinction between work and employment is helpful because it emphasizes that third term, compensation, which provides a means for us to grasp what we so often miss when it comes to working hard. Namely, we are compensated over the long run for the productivity of our work and not for the effort required to yield this productivity. Furthermore, there is a perspectival quality to compensation for productivity; in other words, we are not compensated for our actual productivity but for the value that others ascribe to the things or the ideas or whatever it is we happen to produce for which they are willing to exchange some other thing of value.

So, there are actually three different methods to optimize the rewards for one’s labor: 1) find ways to produce things of greater value, i.e. work more innovatively or with greater skill, 2) squeeze more productivity out of the same quantity of work, i.e. work more efficiently, or 3) find ways to amplify the perception of the value of one’s productivity for the sake of those with whom we are trying to exchange the product of our work for something else of value.

The above might seem ridiculously technical, but this is what makes it possible for a twenty-four year old football player or a seventeen year old pop star to achieve literally hundreds upon thousands of times the compensation for their work when compared to a veritable army of school teachers, social workers, and the like. The world’s working poor and scores of starving artists may curse a system that impoverishes thousands of us while awarding Justin Beiber $53 million in a single year for stuff like “Baby” and “Eenie Meenie,” but there is actually a really good reason for this. Our society as  a whole simply attributes greater value to the products of Justin Beiber’s work, and so we will collectively exchange more stuff of value for it.

Tim Tebow sporting "John 3:16" on his eye black

Notice also that I am using the term, “compensation,” pretty generally here, too. When Tim Tebow inscribed “John 3:16” on his eye black for the 2009 BCS national football championship game as a student at the University of Florida, he received no direct, financial compensation for his labor; however, his activity yielded a disproportionately greater social effect than would have been the case if hundreds of pastors or lawyers or dishwashers had done something similar in their lines of work. Tebow’s singular action rocketed Google searches for “John 3:16” above every other term the night of that game, prompted multiple forms of commentary across traditional media outlets as well as the blogosphere, and landed Tebow numerous speaking engagements where he has been invited to discuss his perspective and share his message about God’s love, as this fan-made, April 2010 clip from the Don Meyer Evening of Excellence at Lipscomb University illustrates.

Listen, social workers and school teachers most assuredly perform a more categorically important function for our society in general than sports stars and pop idols; their work is not only more taxing, it more substantially impacts more people’s lives for the better. Nevertheless, our society ascribes a disproportionately greater value to the productivity of a teenage heartthrob or an NFL-bound Heisman trophy winner than the productivity of the other sorts of people I mentioned. And as frustrating as that may be for many of us, there is a logic behind this seeming irrationality.

But we can do better than simply suffer though this situation, like so many heartbroken hipsters overwhelmed by legions of “beliebers” (as Justin’s fans like to call themselves for some crazy reason). We can use use these facts to jolt ourselves beyond the web of misbelief threatening to hold our futures captive the minute we deal with the matter squarely. Instead of getting frustrated when our efforts fail to pan out in the ways we hope, we should ask three absolutely critical questions and respond accordingly:

  1. Are my efforts actually producing anything of value in this situation, or am I basically killing time and energy?
  2. Am I getting hung up about squeezing more effort out of myself, or are there ways that I can succeed in extracting more productivity from my labor–either by working more efficiently or else by gaining or tapping into more skill so that the things I produce are more valuable?
  3. Is there some person or entity who needs to recognize the value of the things I am producing in order for me to obtain the sort of compensation for which I am hoping in exchange for my work? If people do not seem to care about all the great stuff I produce, how I can I go about raising the perception of its value so they take notice?

Jack Whittacker won nearly $114 million after taxes through the lottery, all of which he lost. He is now struggling financially and claims that he wished he never won in the first place.

Unfortunately, most of us do not pose these sorts of questions to ourselves; perhaps we have difficulty dealing with the weight of freedom and responsibility they remind us we possess. If we take those three questions seriously, then we almost never have anybody to blame for a state of affairs that displeases us over the long haul but ourselves. We cannot blame poor parenting, misunderstanding teachers, cheapskate bosses, no-good lovers, loser friends, or bad hands dealt by life for absolutely ruining everything. Accidents do happen and fortunes are found. Some people suffer low blows, and others reap windfalls. Yet, with rare exception, none of those more negative outcomes can completely inhibit us from increasing our ability to produce things, ideas, or states of affairs of value over time as well as achieve greater recognition for the value of our productivity day by day. Again, an unanticipated stroke of luck can actually numb us to learning these critical lessons, which is probably one reason why so many people who win the lottery actually wind up in worse financial shape in the long run.

Additionally, many of us who aren’t winning the lottery cope with a sense of inadequate compensation for our labor by adjusting our expectations rather than our activity, by seeking refuge from the weight of our freedom and responsibility in pseudo gratitude predicated on the possibility that things could be even worse. In other words, we are often not truly thankful for the blessings we receive; instead, we use fear of an unrealized, potentially more negative future that could befall us to resist the impulse to take a shot at changing our situation for the better in tough but trustworthy ways.

It is easier to reconcile oneself to disappointment than it is to go through the hassle of altering such a fundamental part of one’s worldview, something affecting essentially any sort of relationship we might share with others, from romantic partners to friends to business associates. Philosophically, these are some of the reasons why we tend to miss the lesson that we will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for sheer force of effort alone.

§ 4. The Divine Connection – I have consciously tried to develop this essay using general terms, without limiting discussion of things like work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility to a strictly financial context because I am convinced of its broad applicability. In fact, the experience that really drove this point home for me this year personally had virtually no financial component to it whatsoever.

Back in March of 2010, the father of my senior ministerial colleague, the Rev. Dr. Bill Shereos, passed away. I had worked beside Bill for about two years serving the people of First Free Church and the greater Chicago area, and I watched him overcome immense obstacles during this time. But the death of Bill’s father hit him hard, and as a result, I offered to preach the sermon on a particular Sunday to give him more time to mourn with his family without having to be concerned about the affairs of the church quite so much.

There was just one catch: Bill had already developed a topic for this particular sermon that linked with several other messages scheduled to precede and follow it on adjacent Sundays that month. Moreover, two different volunteer teams at First Free had put in a lot of effort to shape the rest of the parts of the worship service around the topic Bill selected, including a bunch of songs that had been carefully rehearsed and other creative elements on the agenda. Finally, since all this happened rather unexpectedly, it meant that I had relatively little time to whip together a solid sermon on a topic that I could not really change all that much. And since I was doing all this to try to give Bill a bit of a break, I obviously could not ask him for help without undercutting the very way I was trying be helpful myself!

My awesome, senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Bill Shereos. Come visit us at First Free Church in Chicago!

So, I totally altered my usually approach for developing a sermon. Instead of reading a bunch of scriptural texts on the topic, cross-referencing various scholarly essays and commentaries, looking for some key illustration or metaphor to unpack, and collecting a handful of application points, I began by simply listening in earnest to the passage of scripture Bill had chosen weeks in advance. During my other duties leading up to my delivery of this sermon, I had an audio clip of the context for that passage running on my computer constantly, which helped me lock on to the part of the text that harmonized strongest with my own heart as well as the topic with which I had to work. I even listened to this clip right before I went to sleep and when I woke up! I crafted my sermon with a heavy bias in its delivery towards simplicity rather than sheer volume of material to cover, and I listened to sermons other solid preachers had developed on the specific parts of my message where I kept getting hung up in preparation.

Now, I do not suggest this approach for every pastor out there, and I do not utilize it myself much today. But when the time came to preach that sermon, it turned out to be one of the best I ever had the honor of delivering at First Free Church. It was uncomplicated, both simple and rich; it was poignant, both hard-hitting and comforting. That sermon was firmly rooted in the Biblical text, addressed the topic I had been given, but was also spoken forth in my own voice. It was comprised primarily of “original thought,” but it effectively drew from the wisdom of pastors and theologians many years beyond my level of experience and homiletic acumen. I readily admit that God may just have decided to cut me a break given the circumstances and plopped a great sermon in my lap, but the bottom line was that I wound up producing something of categorically greater value and with substantially less effort (due to the fact that I simply had little time to devote to preparation) than was usually the case for my preaching up to that point in time.

Now, this sermon may not seem like that big of a deal to you, but it sure was for me. While I do not preach many sermons under the circumstances I encountered back in March, I have also been able to prepare and deliver several other messages even more effectively ever since. Better yet, this experience caused me to reflect on all the other ways I may have been burning away my efforts fruitlessly because I had become numb to the perception of a surplus of resource and a certain way I basically figured I had to work hard–factors that made it easy for me to forget my opportunity to be more efficient and more creative in preparation.

Best of all, I have found that the modus operandi of this approach is absolutely transferable. The people I have coached and counseled since then, men and women facing immensely more difficult circumstances than what I related above, have been able to powerfully apply this same lesson to difficulties with romantic relationships, stalled job enterprises, acquiring adequate financial aid in college, plotting out a course for their lives, embarking on a new career path, and multiple other circumstances fraught with danger and opportunity. The key in all those real life examples for growth and forward movement was identifying how to increase the clearly discernible value each individual brought to a given state of affairs, not just how to redouble their efforts, snooker some other party, or plead for mere handouts.

To radicalize while also generalizing this point, notice that Christ Jesus himself emphasizes a similar approach in the gospel according to Matthew–my emphasis added:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)

Notice that Jesus does not say that accruing material wealth is flatly worthless or that the pursuit of riches is categorically wrong but that we should direct our efforts towards that which is of even greater value still, towards “treasures in heaven.” He makes a similar point earlier in the chapter when it comes to reframing people’s understanding of even more spiritual or altruistic pursuits when he teaches his followers how they should pray and give charitable donations. In this case, Jesus emphasized that these things should be done in secret such that they are acceptable to the only Person for whom it really matters, God our Father; he was directing them to not just focus on greater quantities of prayer or more voluminous donations but on a way of prayer and giving that really count towards what is lasting by virtue of whose opinion really matters (i.e. not our friends or colleagues who might notice our prayers or see us give). Again, my emphasis added:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…” (Matthew 6:1-4 NIV)

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6-7 NIV)

Yeah, that's Justin Bieber alright...

We all know that there are people who blow a lot of time and effort on pursuits for which they are highly rewarded in one sense, but not with things of truly, lasting value. (Yup, I’m thinking again of the Beibster here…) The only way I know to be certain that we select the sorts of relationships and jobs and courses of action that are truly valuable–to “hedge” for the limitations in our own power of discernment when it comes to assessing the worth of this or that thing–is to commit ourselves to a progressively deepening relationship with the One who created and knows all things best of all. And when we do that, we enjoy the added benefit not just of laying our hands to work that will yield products of actually greater value but also being able to draw the strength, the encouragement, the positive reinforcement we need in order to keep going due to the omnipotent power of the Almighty Living God who can not only guide but sustain us beyond our best wisdom and efforts alone could accomplish.

As Jesus says to his followers in John 15:16 shortly before sacrificing his life on the cross for our redemption, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” And when Christ was about to ascend to heaven after he rose from the dead, he added, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Not only did Jesus promise his disciples that they would be guided towards work of true value, producing “fruit that will last,” he promised they would receive the strength they needed to accomplish this despite all the hardships they would face, receiving “power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” to complete their specific mission, to be Jesus’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Remember, these were regular people, just like you and me. And while you may not have had the opportunity to literally walk beside Jesus in the flesh like his disciples did at that time, God still offers you the chance to receive strength from his hand when you pursue the relationship with him that he so desires. As Psalm 29:11 puts it, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.” Or as the psalmist puts it even more personally in the previous chapter, in Psalm 28:7, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.”

Consequently, the single most effective way to ensure that we will acquire solid rewards for work exercised by truly adding value to a given state of affairs is by making our relationship with God the absolute, top priority. That’s it–that’s what enables us to both identify the pursuits that are most worth the risk of pursuing as well as receive a sufficient level of positive reinforcement we pragmatically need to keep on going when we face hardship and confusion. That’s why scripture repeatedly directs us to put our focus on God in general and Jesus in particular, the “author and perfector of our faith” (cf. Hebrews 12:1), because it is ultimately God “who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (cf. Philippians 2:13). That is why Romans 9:16 strongly emphasizes that, in the final analysis, even our spiritual salvation itself “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

"Entropy" by Chuck Mountain

Merely working hard is not enough; we are meant to work alongside our loving and awesome Creator. That’s why Jesus implores us in Matthew 11:28ff to come to him when we are weary and burdened rather than just keep toiling away. That’s why he invites us to take his “yoke” upon him while learning from him, saying that we will therein find rest for our souls since his yoke is “easy” and his burden is “light,” i.e. because he is the one standing beside us doing the lifting and the pulling with the Holy Spirit working within us rather than our having to go it alone. There is no more liberating, rewarding way of life than this. And that’s why Matthew 6 ends on the following promise–my emphasis added:

“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34 NIV)

§ 5. Concluding, personal notes – This post is a bit more theoretically toned than the previous one, and that is because understanding the principle I’m trying to unpack requires some nuance when it comes to those aforementioned concepts of work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility. Fortunately, it is not that difficult to begin to apply this lesson on the personal level. After asking those three, critical questions I mentioned back in section 3 to assess your state of affairs, after getting honest with yourself about the state of your relationship with God and doing everything possible to put that first in your life, the following responses are almost always effective at increasing the clearly discernible value of whatever you are attempting to bring to a given situation:

  • Jettison whatever is wasting your time or holding you back – I’ll start with a more spiritual example here, just to underscore once more that we’re not just talking about finances alone. As Hebrews 12:1 puts it, we should “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us. ” This post is not written for the merely lazy, but all of us could stand to take a cold, hard look in the mirror to assess the ways we may be choosing paths predicated on false entitlement, fear, inhibition, irresponsibility, frustration, selfishness, and other malignant ways of life. A similar thing is true for endeavors that are not necessarily bad in and of themselves but that function to distract you from more worthwhile pursuits, simply drain your energy, or ultimately waste your time.
  • Embrace and find inspiration amidst limitation – Don’t just sit around waiting for windfalls before getting productive; find ways to bring clearly discernible value to what you are going to do right now. The New Living Translation’s treatment of Ecclesiastes 11:4 is instructive here, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.” For an amazing, positive example of the utility of finding inspiration amidst limitation, check out this TED talk delivered by Amy Purdy, a double-amputee world champion snowboarder, who emphasizes that truly successful innovation is “not about breaking down borders but about pushing off of them.”
  •  Get honest and creative by doing the inner work – Even if you know that merely working harder is not enough, it can be difficult to gain any traction in working smarter. The first step to doing so is to try to get some perspective about whatever endeavor is under consideration, honestly asking, “Do I really believe this is worth the expenditure of my time and energy to begin with? Will it either deliver a product of lasting value that I care about directly or else help serve as a means to such an end?” In the short term, this may ride on whether a given endeavor is sufficiently enjoyable for us, but in the long term, this will require that what we are presently considering contributes to those things that are of greatest value, the things that matter the most of all. (Remember that point about laying up treasures in heaven from Matthew 6…)
  • Close the gap between your view and others’ when it comes to perceived value – Presuming you’ve identified something of true value that you can increase in some way, the next step is to determine two, subsequent matters, 1) “Is this project valuable to the people whose opinion matters, or am I running a wild goose chase?” as well as 2) “How can I help those particular people whose opinion does matter in this case to be more likely to recognize the worth of my contribution?”

Until next time, may you learn to bring greater, discernible value to the jobs and relationships and endeavors to which you have been blessed with the opportunity to apply yourself. May God deliver you from fruitless toil and develop in you greater discernment, teaching you how to most effectively pursue the things that really matter while you put his kingdom and righteousness first in your life. May you overcome frustration, fear, selfishness, inhibition, and irresponsibility as you continue your journey through life, eschewing toilsome and fruitless pursuits for God’s ways by virtue of a growing, saving relationship with Jesus. Most of all, may your work be poured out from an overflowing heart, blessing those with whom you come in contact even while laying up for yourself “treasure in heaven, where moth and vermin do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal.”

Wresting Categorically Awesome from Utterly Depressing – 33rd Birthday Reflection No.1

I Google searched images for "awesome," and this was the first one listed. It was meant to be.

I Google searched images for "awesome," and this was the first one listed. It was meant to be.

Last Wednesday, I celebrated my thirty-third birthday. Insofar as natal conviviality goes, the proceedings balanced partying so hard you regret it the next morning and throttling back so far you regret it just as much, albeit for different reasons. Between multiple projects at work plus a weekend booked for a men’s retreat lead by The Restoration Project at Lake Geneva with my ecclesiastical tribe, I didn’t have much time to plan a midweek celebration very well. Fortunately, my awesome sister, Adriel, was taking a week off of her usual, breakneck paced of conquering the world of rock and roll to lend a much appreciated hand, and this woman is anything but a stranger to throwing together an epic party with a moment’s notice and a beggar’s dime.

Between dinner with childhood friends at home and evenings out with college buddies, during relaxing runs along the lakefront and dancing classes downtown, I paused to reflect on the things I learned over the past year that I want to bring forward with me into the future. This series of posts touches on some of those lessons; so, I hope you enjoy the read because it cost me a whole year to come up with the content! This time, I’ll start with one of the most fundamental principles I learned, but before I do so, be forewarned: This series of posts is for thinking adults, and I’ll speak at a level of analysis and with a choice of verbiage appropriate to that audience. (Any kids reading this, you rock for perusing essays unforced, but ask your parent or guardian to transmit this one for you and filter the most relevant parts.) Alright, the first principle I want to share is the following; you can use the little sectional markings to leap around in the post:

33rd Birthday Lesson No.1 – A fine line separates utterly depressing from categorically awesome. Relentlessly pursue the latter as if your life depends on it, because it actually does.

§ 1. My context for the lesson
§ 2. The principle formally expressed
§ 3. The divine connection
§ 4. The principle applied
§ 5. Conclusion & resources

§ 1. My context for the lesson – I have long lost count of all the ways I have been instructed by recovering the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing over the past year, but just in case this principle sounds a bit too ephemeral and detached, I’m going to unpack it by sharing some highly personal details apart from which this lesson might never have really stuck with me. The most difficult, painful thing I experienced in my thirty-second year was the loss of the single most important, long term, romantic relationship I have ever experienced–the only one that crumbled just short of marriage. And if I had not found a way to grab a hold of the importance of willing the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing, there’s no way my life would have turned out remotely as well as I have been blessed to live it at thirty-three.

Married 72 years and died holding hands

On my birthday, ABC News published a story about Gordon & Norma Yeager, who were married for 72 years and died holding hands. Click the photo to check it out.

Some guys treat getting married like a mere expectation of their social strata. Others regard it as an outmoded artifact of a bygone era thankfully eclipsed by late modernity’s prevalence of hooking up or indefinite cohabitation. Screw that. I want to get freaking married, man. I don’t want some passing phase jollies to stave off the lonesomeness of my immaturity; I want something more like 70+ years of marriage where we die holding hands. And I have been working my butt off for a long time towards becoming the most epic version of myself possible while seeking the person I will love with all my heart and to whom I will commit with all my soul and strength until death parts us. I really, really thought I had finally discovered that, but I was wrong. This person I lost filled me with more joy yet caused me more hurt, stretched me further yet supported me more greatly than anyone else I had ever known, much less seriously dated. I threw everything I had into our relationship with greater gusto than I have ever done with anything else I have attempted in my life for about two and a half years solid, but it just did not work out in the end.

After months filled with the spectrum of experience that a real, romantic relationship involves, everything finally ground down to a definitive halt. Despite multiple attempts to move forward together, I was ultimately left rejected and alone. And that loss hurt. Deeply. I was a lousy friend for a while, my performance at work suffered, and I came close to a full blown depression. Just about every form of music seemed fanciful, enervating, or contrived; in fact, the only tunes that seemed remotely credible to me were Johnny Cash’s repertoire after his wife died and old school, African American gospel. I fought the compulsion to give up across the board some days and lash out at everything and everyone other days. You get the picture; it wasn’t pretty. And yet, there was an unexpected upside to this state of affairs, and that was knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had really put it all out there, that I had gone beyond the stereotypes of flippancy, lack of vulnerability, and pseudo-commitment to risk a real relationship over the long haul. The only way to climb back from losing something on that order of magnitude is one inch at a time, in frequent solitude and with savvy journeymen by turns. And the strength and groundedness that results from this process, even when the relationship does not work out, is something that only those who leap off the precipice of love and live to tell the tale ever know.

This might sound jejune, but moving through this loss in my life–swimming beyond a seeming ocean of sorrow and anger and the temptation for apathy and mere selfishness to a distant shore I never knew–helped make me more joyful, winsome, and bad ass than just about anything else I have ever done. (And, yes, I am using that term “bad ass” in the technical sense and not for mere shock value; words like “intrepid,” “precocious,” or “baleful” just don’t get the same point across.) It motivated me to get more disciplined with my physical health, and I am now stronger and more fit today than I have ever been before. It challenged me to plot out my career more diligently and make insightful, appropriately risky decisions that have probably saved me years worth of unnecessary wrangling and greatly benefited those with whom I have been blessed to partner. My relationship with God and other people deepened and blossomed in new, profound ways. I rediscovered my love of cycling, I developed a more refined expression of personal style, and I finally signed up for that swing dancing class I always wanted to take–discovering that I apparently rock at all three of these things. In the long run, my response to this loss of a relationship even kicked my romantic self in the pants to a new level of attraction. I never figured myself for a Casanova, but I have evidently been getting more confident and (dare I say?) hotter even as I have aged this past year, perhaps as a combined result of all those other points of growth.

Photo: Tomasz Gudzowaty/Agentur Focus/Hollandse Hoogte

"Blue at Fifth Ave in New York City." Click the photo to visit the site where I found this.

§ 2. The principle formally expressed – But none of those things might have resulted from the loss of this relationship at all. Every single, positive point I just mentioned was just a hair’s breadth away from an even more likely failure–my slacking off even more physically, simply rowing the boat at work, flipping God the bird in protest for the seeming garbage he let me and someone I loved go through, and so forth. What’s the difference? What separated my experience over the past six months or so from what might have been and so often is the case for so many of us? One way to wrench the potential for meaningful greatness from suffocating mediocrity is through the will to believe the better and pursue the brighter horizon as if your life depends on it. Because it actually does. The life each one of us desires in our truest and most sound parts of ourselves will not magically happen one day while we’re walking through the park and then last for the rest of our lives without any effort on our parts. We have to commit ourselves to chasing that life down on the one hand and enticing it to us on the other, of rejecting passivity on the one hand yet finding peace and contentment and thankfulness on the other. That may sound so obvious as to be hardly worth expressing, yet time and again I have watched myself and others miss this lesson to quiet, catastrophic results. And that’s why I’m starting with it here as the first principle that I want to take with me into the future at the dawn of my thirty-third year.

I don’t think it’s by accident that I learned this lesson in a way that really stuck with me shortly after losing the person I loved so deeply and was so convinced I would marry. In fact, it is often  hardship that draws the best out of us when we respond hopefully and courageously. The Roman lyric poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, put it this way, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” Unbroken and unchallenged abundance tends to produce a dangerous sense of ease, a sense of having arrived completely that far more often leads to indolence and apathy than industry and altruism. Helen Keller, the first person born both deaf and blind to ever earn a baccalaureate degree, put it this way, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” And it is those character traits and experiences that provide each one of us with the foundation for a truly full and deeply satisfying life.

Going through adversity isn’t just good for us alone; it turns out that it’s good for the way we conduct ourselves with others, too. Dr. Anne Harrington, Harvard University’s Professor for the History of Science, found a strong correlation between coping with one’s own suffering and the sort of generosity that goes beyond merely empathizing with another’s difficulty to doing something substantially helpful in response. Her essay, “A Science of Compassion or a Compassionate Science?” in the volume, Visions of Compassion, defines this virtue as “a process of external and internal reorientation that softens our sense of individuality by bringing it into a felt relationship with the pain and needs of some other.” It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that the more one has dealt with one’s own sufferings, the better equipped one is to share relationships with others that includes their needs and pains, too. Maybe that’s one reason why so many of us do such a terrible job at sustaining real relationships; we’ve insulated ourselves so well from experiencing our own pain that we are at a total loss in knowing what to do with others’ hardship. Consequently, we quarantine one another until whoever is hurting gets help or buries their pain enough for us to return to our little playhouse, so-called life without being bothered by anybody with a proclivity for being a downer.

§ 3. The divine connection – I develop most of my writings from an explicitly Christian perspective for good reason. The key detail that my relationship with God through Jesus brings to bear on the topic of this post is that all of the above involves far more than merely pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, far more than “not sweating the small stuff” or forcing oneself to regard every glass as half-full in a sort of aggressive optimism that enables one to gradually transcend self limitation. In fact, there’s a real danger lurking in our success at wrenching the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing. On the one hand, we can become prideful and relate to others with an attitude of arrogant triumphalism, you know, because we rock so hard for having pulled off such a difficult stunt day after day in comparison to mere mortals. On the other hand, we can white-knuckle our way through all of life, surviving and even growing in strength but never being able to appreciate it or move beyond anxiety, you know, because everything depends on our continual, unbroken pursuit of greatness versus settling for an inanity that not-so-secretly nauseates or terrifies.

Praise God

A picture of a random guy I found, praising God at dawn.

The only way I’ve been able to surmount this conundrum is by continually living in light of the fact that the process of dividing awesome from depressing is predicated on the being of an omnipotent, magnificent, transcendent God who is completely beyond myself, my aspirations, my failures, and my success. And this God has, for completely mysterious reasons, continually, relentlessly chosen to draw near to us fragile, mundane, limited creatures in such a way as to not just take us from bad to better but from dead to alive, to move us quite literally beyond anything we could ever hope to do or be into something 2 Corinthians 5:11 and following calls “new creation.” Isaiah 57:15 puts it this way:

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

It is this relationship with God–a relationship God initiates in total freedom even though we don’t deserve it–that serves as the ground for everything I am talking about in this post. This is not about merely willing a better you that could exist tomorrow if only you commit yourself to the process of bettering yourself today; this is about responding to the better you that, in some sense, already is right in the midst of very real difficulty and pain.

Of course, it’s not just random circumstance but often other people who are the source of our pain. Not everybody is a generally upstanding individual, like the girlfriend I lost, whose heart also hurt in letting me go. A lot of people treat others with purely intentional malice and appalling wickedness. And that’s probably one reason why we see so many places throughout the Bible where righteous people are really struggling not just with their own challenges but with the apparent ease of the wicked. In fact, the scriptures record serveral folks directly confronting God on this matter, such as the prophet Jeremiah in the twelfth chapter and first verse of the book that bears his name, saying, “You are always righteous, LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”

The Bible gives no pat answers for the process by which God executes justice; so, I’m going to focus on what results from presuming that God’s justice holds in this post and direct the skeptical reader towards more lengthy texts that dig into the question helpfully, like N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Continuing as described, it is God’s justice coupled with God’s love that enables us to relentlessly pursue the better without getting sidetracked by resentment or frustration, without thinking that it is all up to us, and without becoming arrogant when we succeed since we know that it is ultimately God drawing us to our destiny rather than us hunting that destiny down on our own and beating back those jerks who ruthlessly get in our way. There is peace to be found in the fact that God not only strengthens those who are downtrodden but will ultimately hold accountable those who are doing the treading down.

The basis of our pursuit of the categorically awesome is the being, activity, and plans of an all-powerful, loving, and also just God. And if that is the case, we do not proceed with this pursuit alone or haphazardly; in fact, we should do so reverently, in relationship with the God who enables us to act in the first place. All our efforts should take place in an overarching context of worship, not as a deluded flight from reality with all its messiness but as a seeing beyond, an embracing, a celebrating, and a living into an even more substantial way of being that connects our stories with the greatest story of all told by the same Author who is weaving it all together. That’s why there’s nothing melodramatic nor cliche going on in the admonition of Proverbs 23:17-18:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.


Some gorgeous street art I found with the text, "There is always hope." Thanks, Del Shimandle for identifying Banksy as the artist!

And that’s why Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome that we not only benefit from this hope on the basis of what we expect to occur in the future but on the basis of what we can experience right now, the growth and victory predicated on God choosing to be good to us in the midst of all the turmoil of life regardless of what we deserve. The good that God invites us to receive and share doesn’t merely anesthetize our wounds while leaving them festering, it doesn’t just psych up our souls but leave our frames limp and lifeless. No, the love that God desires to pour into us right now is every bit as substantial as God’s own omnipotent, bad-ass-beyond-all-bad-ass Self that brings peace and wholeness to ourselves and others right in the middle of circumstances marked by suffering and pain. Thus our hope is both beyond us but also within our grasp; it is something that effectively buoys us in life’s storms due to both its proximity and its substance apart from our subjective experience. It is trustworthy and not merely wishful thinking; as Paul puts it in Romans 5:1-5:

We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

As a result, I can find a greater strength than Sinatra recommends by merely doing things “my way.” I don’t channel my frustration from life’s disappointments in one arena to some poor, unsuspecting target in another arena. I tap into a more substantial reservoir of power than some allegedly mystical but ultimately impersonal spirit-force, and I don’t just sit around waiting for things to get better when there is a course of thought and action I can and should take now. The twelfth chapter of the book of Hebrews teaches us that it was “for the joy set before him” that Jesus endured both the sufferings and the shame of crucifixion on my behalf, and Nehemiah 8:10 teaches that is this same “joy of the Lord” that can serve as the source of my strength today.

§ 4. The principle applied – Lest this all this smack of grandiose religiosity, here’s just one everyday example of this principle at play in my life less than a week ago. It was the the morning of my birthday, Wednesday October 19th, and I found myself at work about two hours earlier than normal. Since I currently lead a weekly, Wednesday night gathering for men and women focused on learning more of who God is and what this means for our lives with a similar commitment on Tuesdays, I usually take Wednesday morning off so it’s not a straight, forty-eight hour block of labor week after week. But a colleague of mine was depending on my preparing some important data for a time-sensitive project that would impact our entire team’s labor; so, I got up early and started to work. Since I was planning to go out with my sister and our compadres later that evening after the group I lead had disbanded for the night, this also meant I had to shift my normal workout time to occur before lunch, before I would normally have started working at all.

I don’t like to do things that way. I like to either workout last–healthily burning frustration that has accumulated over the day–or else I like to breakup a longer workday by going running or doing some calisthenics just before the final, couple hours worth of work to regain the wherewithal to finish strong. Instead, I was pretty much stuck working out just after an initial block of work, meaning I had the majority of the workday still ahead. And since we’re talking about Chicago in October, it was cold, it was raining, and nearly gale force winds where beating the tar out of my lakefront running route. So, I put on few extra layers of clothes, cued up the most intense track I could find on my mp3 player, and ran for over half an hour with the wind and rain blowing at me right in the face. That’s how I started my birthday–getting up earlier than normal to work on somebody else’s project and then running in the rain. Still lacking a girlfriend!

Birthday shot at the beach, midway through a run in the rain.

Birthday shot at the beach, midway through a run in the rain. (Don't ask about the goofy hand...)

And it absolutely rocked. I tell you, I felt the presence of God. I was grateful for everything in my life that had lead up to that point, even the lessons I had learned from being dumped half a year ago by the woman I had loved the most. I even stopped to take a photo with all the sand whipping around me on the beach to commemorate the occasion. That ridiculous sign I’m making with my hand is supposed to look like a wolf, because I felt like I was not just coping with my circumstances but diving headlong right into the fray to tear them apart and journey onward. When I returned from running, my lungs were burning, my legs hurt, and my clothes were soaked. I had sand in my hair and just about every exposed orifice. And I felt like I could tear apart the Rock of Gibraltar and fabricate the Arc de Triomphe with my bare hands. What could have been the most depressing birthday morning of my life turned out to be the only one I have ever committed to written memory so far, and that is because I refused to let all the negative pieces I mentioned above determine the tone of the day, because I was able to yank one more sliver of categorically awesome results from utterly depressing conditions. I felt more than alright; I felt like I could take on the world. And so I confronted the rest of the day with both resolve and joy, and when I finally made it through that bizarre combination of fruitfulness and frustration that so typically marks the afternoon and evening of the average, urban pastor, I was ready to party in celebration of a full life that I had been given and that I had also pursued, that I had found and yet had also helped to build.

§ 5. Conclusion and resources – It has taken me several hours to write this post. And taking stock of this lesson and applying it to my life is what helped me to do so rather than pitch everything to the wind and watch television. It’s the thing that motivated me to throw out the Victoria’s Secret catalog I received in the mail today rather than ogle its contents or take a break from writing to plow through some porn online for a couple hours. This lesson is what I applied this afternoon when I worked out, and it’s the same lesson I will apply later this week when I meet new people and get in touch with a couple ladies who have caught my eye despite the fact that not a single person has reciprocated a romantic advance of mine for more than half a year.

Wrenching the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing is what is going to help me wash the dishes, clean my room, and straighten up my office. It is what enabled me to go deep with my brothers this weekend during our retreat together rather than just throw out the pat answers and mentally disengage from the opportunity to bond with and be challenged by other men pursuing Jesus together in person rather than posting quips on facebook. This principle is going to help keep me humble when I start to feel high and mighty, and it will help keep me from beating myself down when I don’t measure up to the standards I wish I could attain on my timetable. It will help me to treat others with compassion, as people of beauty and wonder who God loves and for whom Christ died and not just bags of meat that make demands of my time or exist to serve as means to my ends. This lesson will help keep me from curving in on myself and instead draw me towards the One who loved me first, who loves me still, and who will lovingly guide me to the very end by the grace and power of God.

The Arc de Triomphe at night

The Arc de Triomphe at night, from wikipedia.

I might have shot wide on some things I shared in this post, but I hope you have taken a moment to ponder the one or two things I wrote that bear an eternal worth beyond the murmurings of the messenger. Really learning this lesson cost me something dear, but it is also paying off in simple, complex, slight, and substantial ways all at once that continue to surprise me, enrich me, and make me stronger, more grateful, more joyful, and more dangerous. To conclude, here are a couple resources that have been helpful for me to implement some changes in my life along the lines of this lesson. A few of these are Chicago and dude-specific, but the fairer gender and those living elsewhere shouldn’t encounter too much trouble extrapolating. Until next time, may you learn to wrest the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing for God’s glory and your continued growth. Remember, your life depends on it.

  • The Restoration Project – Website for a ministry based out of Colorado focused on catalyzing “the restoration of every man’s heart by calling him to rediscover the dignity bestowed upon him by his Creator, initiating him into masculinity as it was meant to be.” These guys did an outstanding job running the men’s retreat I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and I’m really looking forward to checking out more of their resources since I’ve returned.
  • Rootstock Wine and Beer Bar – Gorgeous establishment run by my college buddy, Johnny Hap, and his two business partners. My favorite, relatively new wine bar in all of Chicago with lots of character; bring some friends the next time you’re looking for a bacchanal spot to celebrate the categorically awesome in your life.
  • Simplefit – Hands down the most effective calisthenic program I’ve ever encountered. Doing this plus three days of high-intensity interval training cardio each week has given me a body I never thought I would experience. Best of all, it takes around fifteen minutes a day and is completely free.
  • Esquire Barber – Our culture has forgotten what a legit barber shop does to a man’s soul. Rediscover it here, complete with straight razor shave and resident French bulldog. Love this place…
  • Accountability – Get some–you are not meant to travel alone. This is so important, I’m going to dedicate an entire post to the principle. In the mean time, check out websites like this or this to see what I’m talking about from an explicitly Christian perspective and websites like this to explore accountability in a more general fashion in the work place.
  • Big City Swing – There are several great places to learn to dance in Chicago. I picked this one because I liked the instructors and it was far enough away from my flat that I could sort of make an event out of going there. Fewer things make me feel more like a dude with pro skills that learning to dance better and better every week…
  • Music for your soul – I recommend Johnny Cash’s 2002 “American IV: The Man Comes Around” or Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir’s 1971 “Like a Ship (Without a Sail)”. I’m a bit of a unique bird and also get fired up by Daft Punk’s 2001 “Discovery”. (I blame it on this appeal to my youth.) Of course, I would be remiss to suggest the fine song-smithery of my sister’s rocking band; since they’re recording their latest album right now in Nashville, try 2010’s Death Won’t Send a Letter. You’ll be glad you did.

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