Lookout Points

One door closes and another opens. The way is always forward not backward even if it seems like I moved to the side. That being said, there are moments when the way provides lookout points to assess where I’ve been and where I’m headed. I have come to view these lookout moments as pauses or breaks in the action. The hustle and bustle of life has a way of swallowing them up. When the way provides breaks in the action, wisdom demands that I respond in kind. It’s so very important to recognize where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. Someone once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly.

I’m not suggesting that introspection is the ticket. Maybe I’m splitting hairs a bit, but my gut tells me that there’s a difference between introspection and reflection. The former requires that I look inward for the answer while the latter searches outward. The tagline to The X-Files show has some basis in reality: “the truth is out there.” When I scan the horizon at this current lookout point, what do I see? One thing I realize is that my view seems partially obstructed by my finite condition. Some of the path is perceptible, but some of it isn’t. When I glance behind me, the view is clear. I see the dark and shadowy patches as well as the lush ones and those moments that were somewhere in the middle.

Now, the way forward seems more or less visible to the naked eye; however, I can’t help noticing that I’m looking for higher ground in order to get a better view. From where I stand, I see what I am able to see. I want to see more, to know more. Way off in the distance, I see the final destination. It’s a glorious sight, and my heart yearns for it. There’s still much more of the journey that remains. I know that as I keep moving forward, the moments between here and there become clearer. Each step requires faith in my Lord because this fuels hope and perseverance during the rough and tumble moments. Faith is also the sight needed for perceiving people, places, and things along the way. Without it, I’m a blind man ambling along the way oblivious to moments of blessing and danger.

Not only does faith in Jesus give me sight, but his word lights up the way that I walk (Psalm 119:105). What I find ironic about this is that the journey is real and takes place on this physical earth; however, the only way that I can truly navigate it requires that I have spiritual or unseen things in my possession like faith in him and the indwelling presence of his Spirit. Both of these grant me the ability to make sense of his word in order to apply it to my life. If I don’t have faith in Christ and the indwelling presence of his Spirit, I’m a blind man on the way. It doesn’t matter how clear the path is, or how bright and sunny the weather is, a blind man is blind. It was a wonderfully, gracious and merciful act on the Lord’s part to enable me to see. The journey demands it.

Dusting Off the Cobwebs

Ok then, I have attended seminary for a little over one week. This accounts for my silence of late on the blog. I apologize to my readers and followers. It has been twelve years since I sat in a graduate classroom. At this point, I’m dusting off the cobwebs and refurbishing the rusty areas with gleaming steel. The process is not easy and the days have been long. If someone were to ask me, so how do you really feel, Matthew? My answer is rather simple and to the point. The coursework has been an overwhelming flood. It’s been hard to tell if I’ve been standing on the solid rock.

I started out with a total of twelve rock’em, sock’em units through Talbot. Now, here, at the end of this week, I am proud to say that I am down to nine units. The surgery was absolutely necessary in order to preserve my sanity and health for this first semester. One of the things that I learned through this process had to do with pride and arrogance. The Lord reminded me through prayer and interactions with fellow peers and professors that knowing my limitations is a sign of wisdom and humility. If I had continued to “muscle through my classes,” then I would have succeeded in becoming the living definition of pride and foolishness.

How many times have I heard it said that the Lord is always ready to receive those who need him? I lack the proper number of fingers and toes in order to give a full account. One thing is certain, I’m blessed to have a wife at my side who refuses to allow me to slink and slack with respect to seeking the Lord’s counsel. She does not abide with such disobedience. To that I say, Amen. I will end this short post with the words from the great hymn, “The Solid Rock”:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

Refrain:
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

2 When darkness veils his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace;
in every high and stormy gale,
my anchor holds within the veil. [Refrain]

3 His oath, his covenant, his blood
support me in the whelming flood;
when all around my soul gives way,
he then is all my hope and stay. [Refrain]

4 When he shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in him be found,
dressed in his righteousness alone,
faultless to stand before the throne. [Refrain]

Crushed in Spirit

Earlier this week, my wife shared with me a very sad story. One of her friends has a daughter who’s been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. It is inoperable in addition to having a 100% mortality rate. The little girl is six years old.  She has two older siblings and one younger one. This is the sort of real life story, which seems so unjust. How is it that I have been granted thirty-eight years of life, but this little girl might be lucky to live to either eight or nine even with successful radiation treatment?

There is grief and then there is grief. I cannot fathom what is going on in the hearts and souls of this girl’s parents. They are staring down the prospect of burying their daughter either in two months or two years. Right now, I feel the weight of this as I write this entry in my in-laws’ place. Like I said earlier, the heaviness that I feel pales in comparison to what this mother and father shoulder at the moment. Their pain only increases as they prepare to explain to their two oldest children the reality of their youngest sister’s health. How do they do this?

I do not have any answers. In fact, I’m not even going to speculate. When I think of the friends and relatives of this family, I wonder what supporting them looks like in this season. The most reasonable thing to do seems to be to grieve alongside of them. I am not suggesting to engage in a pity party, or to wallow in the mire. It is important to see the hard circumstances of life as hard. The Lord does not teach me to bury my head in the sand about life’s difficulties. Neither does he call me to pour syrup over them.

What does the Lord say to his people who face intense grief? Here is a verse from the Psalms that provides a genuine promise fom the Lord: “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves those crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18, ESV). The last part of the verse is my favorite. I do not think that the Psalmist could have used a better metaphor than crushed in spirit. This is exactly what I feel for the parents of their little girl. I join them in praying and seeking our Heavenly Father to heal this little girl. He is their God of comfort and mine, too (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, ESV).

My Tears in Your Book

All around me I see men and women going about their lives without a care in the world.  The afterlife does not trouble them neither does their before-life or even their present life.  None of it really occupies their minds in such a way as to live better.  If there is any goal, then it might be fulfilling a dream, or securing exhilaration moment by moment.  Truth be told, there are some who succumb to despair and then suicide.  The late Robin Williams comes to mind, which refutes the opening sentence to this paragraph.  What this means is that one cannot judge a book by its cover.  It is superficial and harmful as it ruptures any sense of connection or community with others.

Five years ago, I struggled mightily with my purpose or direction in life.  The path lacked clear definition and solidity.  It seemed like the fog refused to go away no matter how bright the sun shone down upon me.  I longed for clarity, for a greater sense of knowing where I was going.  What I ached for was the very thing that eluded me.  It was similar to catching a fish with my bare hands.  The prize kept slipping out of my hands.  Anger turned into frustration, which morphed into exasperation.  Whenever I saw a hamster running on a wheel I understood its predicament.  Here is a bible verse that comes to mind:

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a, ESV, NIV, & NKJV).

This text was both infuriating and soothing.  It convicted me in the midst of circumstances that defied my ability to understand or to perceive them with certainty.  The plain meaning of this passage put me in my place.  Because I am strong-willed, this was not what I wanted to experience.  It came off like an insult to my intelligence as if I needed turn a blind eye to reality.  Anger surfaced with ease as did my invective toward the Lord.  My counselor at the time kicked me in the butt about suppressing my anger.  He reminded me that Job vented his anger and aching heart toward God.  When I listened to my counselor say this to me, I heard it as a challenge; however, the Lord changed my heart to see it as an invitation to come into his presence with the good, the bad, and most importantly, the ugly.

I sat on Psalm 46:10 for a bit.  It kept popping up into my mind and heart everywhere I went.  One day I opened up the above verse in the NIV and NASB translations.  I noticed that the latter rendered the first half of the verse as “cease striving” rather than be still.  This caused me to scratch my head, so I grabbed my Strong’s Concordance in order to find out the Hebrew word or wording for “cease striving” and “be still.”  What I discovered brought comfort to my heart and soul.  The Hebrew verb translated as cease striving in the NASB or be still in most English translations means to leave off your own attempts.  Basically, stop being like a hamster in a wheel, i.e. running around and getting nowhere in the process.

If I truly desired to see real change and growth in my life, I needed to stop living life my way and begin living it God’s way.  The only way that I could do this with any degree of success meant opening up myself to the Lord with honesty.  Rather than bury my feelings deep down, the path before me required that I express them to the Lord.  I began realizing day by day that he wanted to hear me give voice to my heart’s longings, fears, joys, and concerns.  It was an invitation into a fuller and more intimate relationship with the Lord.  Through my church community, my counselor, my mentor, and my time with God and his word, the Holy Spirit began leading and empowering me along this path to cease my striving and know that he is God.

Each day was its own battle.  In fact, each hour or minute or second was its own battle.  Years of thinking and doing one way no longer worked anymore; however, that did not stop me from slipping back into what was second nature to me.  This entire season had been a test of my faith and trust in God.  I needed my Lord’s daily bread for sustenance and energy as I kept taking each step (Proverbs 30:8, NIV).  Some days I felt up, or down, or in, or out.  I experienced the whole gamut of emotions, yet I noticed an increasing assurance that God was with me.  I wanted to put some of this down in writing, so that I would not forget God’s grace and mercy toward me.

Something I had read two weeks ago spurred me into action.  During my daily bible reading, I stumbled over the following passage: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your book” (Psalm 56:8, ESV)?  This verse comforted me as it illustrates that my Lord and Father knows and sees everything that I experience.  For whatever the reason, I recalled this season of my life that became the subject of this post.  I did not have to collect my thoughts in order to preserve them.  According to this verse, God already tucked away this whole entire season of my life into his book.  He had beaten me to the punch, and I did not even know it.  When I realized this fact, I sat there motionless.  I’m still sitting motionless.             

 

Shining in Dark Places

If there is one constant question that plagues humankind, it is the recognition of his or her existence by a supreme being.  There are other questions that afflict the hearts and souls of men and women.  Some are every bit as pressing as this one such as why do bad things happen to good people, how come there is so much injustice in the world, and so on.  It is very easy to throw out glib responses to these soul-searching queries, which drive at the heart’s concern regarding purpose or meaning in this world.  For example, “of course you have a destiny in this world.  You’ve been created in the image of God.  What on earth leads you to believe otherwise?”  If I am honest with myself, there are numerous things that I could point to in my experience.

There really is nothing wrong with telling someone that he or she has been made in the image of God.  The issue at hand is that it comes off as too tidy of an answer.  It is thoroughly biblical to say that all men and women have been created in the image of God.  This comes straight out of the creation account in the first book of the Bible and the first chapter (Genesis 1:26-27, ESV).  I have responded this way in the past to folks who wondered about their purpose or place in the world.  Many times I failed to recognize their question as an honest revealing of a deep longing within their heart.  At some point, it will be necessary to give them theological responses, but there is a heart connection that needs to ground them.

Men and women need to know that I have listened to them regardless of whether or not they like me.  In fact, not everyone will like me, so I need exhibit a strong dose of humility.  I am not the be-all, end-all of existence for those in my life.  What I have in my possession are two ears and a heart for listening and caring.  How I listen and care for others must fall in line with the way Jesus did it.  His life serves as the pattern to shape and guide mine as I listen and care for those in my life.  Make no mistake, there is truth and error and it is imperative that I know the difference.  I have no desire to live life as a blind guide, who leads other blind people into a pit.  The light of Christ and his word must dwell within me in addition to being expressed through me (Psalm 119:105; John 8:12, ESV).

When I reflect on Christ’s command to let my light shine, it is vital to recognize that I must go into the darkness or into dark places (Matthew 5:14-16, ESV).  This means that I need to go where the hurting, the broken, the lost, and the seeking are dwelling.  It is true that those living in darkness may find any amount of light blinding. The response to the light may be one of revulsion, but some may adjust to it with time.  This calls for patience and humility on my part, especially in the case of the man or woman searching for answers to deep longings.  I do not know where someone is at with respect to their life’s journey.  It is slanderous for me to presume that someone, or anyone, is beyond the light of life (John 8:12, ESV).  If I judge someone’s heart in this way, then I have acted in the place of the supreme Judge (James 4:11-12, ESV).  This is extremely thin ice in the eyes of the Lord.

I find it crucial and humbling to obey the following passage: “…[be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15b-16, ESV).  It is not easy to give an answer with gentleness and respect as the culture grows increasingly hostile toward Christians and the Christian faith.  There is a tendency to fight back or lash out; however, this is not how Jesus responded to the insults and persecution directed at him.  If Jesus is my example, the image that I’m being conformed to, then I must be ready to face insults, persecution, and injustice as a bearer of his light.  Something tells me that I should expect the same in my life.  

Trust in the Lord

Last week, I received word that I had been admitted into the M.Div program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) for this coming fall.  I knew in my heart that I would have no trouble getting into this school or any school for that matter; however, the quickness of the decision took me by surprise.  The slowest part of the application process had been gathering my official transcripts.  It has been over ten years since I graduated from Loyola Marymount University’s (LMU) MFA program in digital/film production.  It has been at least fifteen or sixteen years since I completed my undergraduate degrees from FIU.

Because so much time has past since my college and grad school days, my personal accounts went dormant due to inactivity.  I always will be on record as an alum of both LMU and FIU.  This does not ensure quick and easy access to my student records; consequently, SBTS experienced a significant time delay with respect to receiving my official transcripts.  It did not help that I began my application process after Thanksgiving and right before Christmas.  I viewed this time between the holidays as a black hole, i.e. requests get sent out, but nothing comes back.  Of course, the application process required patience and understanding, which are two things that come so easy for me.

At some point, I realized that I needed to rescind the desire to control this process.  I followed up with both LMU and FIU as needed, but there was a limit to this, too.  During those follow up calls, I discovered that my transcript request to LMU wound up lost in the mail or in an undiscovered, black hole.  To make a long story short, one of LMU’s student records’ officers personally took care of my request while I remained on the line.  I received an email notification from Southern that my application had been completed last Wednesday morning.  The very next day the admissions department notified me that I had been accepted into their M.Div program.  When I read that email, I sat at my work desk rather stunned.  My application review took no more than a day.

I mentioned my surprise to my wife, who nudged me last Spring/Summer to either put up or shut up regarding seminary.  She responded to me that Southern knows a good thing when they see it.  Again, in my head, I knew that I would not have any issues gaining acceptance.  My heart was another matter along with my imagination.  Those two aspects had been essential throughout my grad school days at LMU.  Sometimes my heart and imagination trip me with making decisions.  It is too easy to second guess, over-think, or stew about future plans.  When my wife took me task about seminary last year, she gently and firmly demanded a decision.  From her perspective, I must have looked like a hamster in a wheel.  Once I took the first steps toward completing the application, then securing the letters of recommendation, and then the transcripts, a definite sense of peace and resolve entered my soul.

One seminary is down, and there is one more to go.  The peace and resolve remain in my soul, but I still come away with some amazement regarding SBTS’s swift decision regarding my application.  It seems to me like my heart needed this in order to catch up to my mind.  There is a saying that I have heard over and over again.  The wording goes something like this: “The longest journey you will ever make is between your heart and your mind.”  It is a worthwhile journey that requires trust, which the prophet Isaiah stated years ago under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock” (Isaiah 26:3-4, ESV).